One Forward, Two Back
Next Steps From Two Great Bands

So no sooner did I post last week’s column, in which I enumerated the 10 albums I’m breathlessly anticipating this summer, when two more were announced. That brings us to an even dozen, but since I’m dealing with two from last week’s list in this installment, we’ll just call it 10 again. Until next week, when Daft Punk drops. And the week after that, when the Polyphonic Spree hits. It’s not a perfect system.

Anyway, neither of the new entries have release dates yet, but both feel fairly imminent. First up is Over the Rhine, the Ohio-based husband and wife duo. They’ve been on my list of favorites for some time, but lately, they’ve been shaking up their minimalist sound with some dazzling jazz influences. Their last album, The Long Surrender, is simply incredible, and Karin Bergquist continues to earn her place on the list of the best singers we have.

OtR has been accepting pre-order donations for a pair of new albums since late last year. The first of those turned out to be a double, called Meet Me at the Edge of the World. Nineteen songs, with each of the two discs granted its own distinct title. The last time Over the Rhine made a double album, it was called Ohio, and it kindled my love for this band. Here’s hoping this will be similarly amazing. Go here for more info.

Hammock’s last album was a double as well, the blissful and beautiful Departure Songs. Its companion is called Oblivion Hymns, and the band says it’s being mixed right now. Hammock, if you don’t know, is the greatest shoegaze band on the planet. (Yes, I know My Bloody Valentine is back.) They create ethereal, gorgeous oceans of sound, and they say they use guitars to do it, but if they said they conjured orchestras from the ether with centuries-old magic, I’d believe them too. Hammock has made some of my favorite sounds of the past 10 years, and a new album from them is always welcome. Check them out here.

OK, enough lists. On to actual reviews!

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If ever a band suffered from too much hype, it was Vampire Weekend.

Their 2008 self-titled debut was practically flawless, a bright and kinetic update of Paul Simon’s Graceland sound for the college set. In 34 short minutes, the New York quartet established themselves as one of the brightest new lights in the sky, igniting both a rabid fandom and a backlash before they could even adjust to their newfound fame. It’s little surprise that their rushed second record, Contra, was such a huge step down. Torn between trying to innovate and striving to keep their new legion of fans happy, Vampire Weekend treaded water in the worst possible way.

They did the smartest thing they could do – they took their time crafting their third record. And now that said album is here, it’s clear they did the second-smartest thing they could do as well – they evolved past any concerns about the staleness of their sound. The unfortunately titled Modern Vampires of the City is a real surprise, a darker and more experimental work that dispenses with just about every recognizable element of the Vampire Weekend ethos, yet manages to sound like them anyway.

I’ve been saying that Modern Vampires is this band’s Achtung Baby. It’s a collection of relatively simple singalongs recorded in the weirdest ways they could think of. Musical mastermind Rostam Batmanglij plays the lion’s share of the instruments here, and contributes even more keyboard sounds and programmed drums than on Contra. But he’s taken the time to figure out how all the pieces fit here, how his blips and sighs can sit alongside his piano and organ, his occasional guitar, and Ezra Koenig’s warm voice.

That’s not to say this is smoothed out. But it accomplishes a neat trick – it sounds perfectly formed, until you really listen, and you realize what a strange thing it is. Take “Unbelievers” as an example. It opens with organ and shuffling drums, but before the chorus comes in, it’s shifted around to pounding piano, with galloping surf guitar waiting in the wings. Then the synths take over around the 2:30 mark, with Irish pipes bringing it home, save for a brief return to that organ at the end. But here’s the thing: “Unbelievers” just sounds like a great little pop song. You’d never know it’s so tricky unless you’re listening for the joins.

“Step” starts with a softly delivered diss (“Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl”) followed by a hip-hop beat. But Batmanglij goes all Baroque on us, layering piano, harpsichord and a choral synth sound on top of that beat. It’s thoroughly unexpected, and thoroughly enjoyable, even when Koenig whispers threats: “The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out, what you on about?” “Diane Young” (a pun on “dyin’ young”) is like a perverse inversion of a ‘50s rockabilly song, all flailing electronic drums and low, rumbling keyboards. Batmanglij even throws in an ear-piercing guitar solo, topped with distorted synths. Koenig’s voice is pitch-shifted beyond recognition here, particularly in the odd “baby baby baby” bridge. (His best line here: “You’ve got the luck of a Kennedy.”)

The record continues in this vein, these straightforward songs given fascinatingly odd studio treatments. But they all work. The band clearly took their time with this one, trying out arrangements and recording techniques until they’d crafted the strangest, most interesting record they could. “Everlasting Arms” takes them back to Paul Simon territory, with its skipping beat and kinetic bass line, but the organ is ever so slightly off, and the synth string quartet almost jarring. “Finger Back” is a meticulously produced piece of work, every element designed to sound like crappily recorded garage rock, distorting your speakers. That is, until the spoken word section. (“This Orthodox guy fell in love with a girl at the falafel shop, and why not?”)

The album’s high point is “Ya Hey,” a slowly loping hymn about failing to understand God. “Through the fire and through the flames, you won’t even say your name, only ‘I am that I am,’ but who could ever live that way,” Koenig wonders, as the slippery bass line shimmies beneath a shifting bed of keyboards. The chorus finds Koenig’s voice folded, spindled and mutilated, squeaking out the title phrase like an unhappy baby. But it all works. It’s actually quite beautiful, and unlike anything this band has done. You could imagine them playing this straight, but it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

The same could be said for the entire record. That Modern Vampires is consistently enjoyable is a testament to the craft that went into assembling it from so many jagged parts. (Only “Hudson” comes close to collapsing under its own weight.) It’s a striking new direction for Vampire Weekend, a band I feared had been boxed into a limited sound. Man, was I wrong. I’m not sure I’ll hear another album this imaginative in 2013, but the magic of it is that it remains, from beginning to end, recognizably Vampire Weekend. I’ll never worry about limits with them again – if they can be this, they can be anything.

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If you’d asked me last week, I would have said that while Vampire Weekend is nice and all, I was expecting true greatness from Promises, the fourth album by the Boxer Rebellion. No one is more surprised than me at how that turned out.

I first heard this London band two years ago, when I picked up their third album, the magnificent The Cold Still, on a whim. (I liked the cover.) I was hooked from the first notes of opener “No Harm.” The Boxer Rebellion plays majestic, soaring, driving, atmospheric rock, as straightforward as it is magical. They conjure whole worlds with their guitars, and the elastic voice of native Tennessean Nathan Nicholson sends their best songs into a deeply emotional orbit.

Yeah, I love that record. But as much as I don’t want a Modern Vampires-style reinvention from this band, Promises feels to me like a holding pattern. For 11 songs, they just sort of do what they do, only the production this time – by the band and Billy Bush instead of the great Ethan Johns – isn’t quite as good. They still try to cast their particular spell, and on massive tunes like “Fragile” they manage it. But it feels like an effort this time, like the songs didn’t come as easily, or the sounds weren’t at their fingertips.

For one thing, there’s an unfortunate number of big keyboard parts filling in the holes that either should have been left open, or covered by guitar-scapes. For another, though, the songs just aren’t as good this time around. There’s nothing here as soul-filling as “Both Sides Are Even,” nothing as invigorating as “The Runner.” These songs tend to sound alike after a while, a malady the last album never succumbed to. There are fewer melodies to sink your teeth into, and you’re left with similar-sounding pretty noise.

But hey, the land of not-as-good-as-The-Cold-Still is where about 80 percent of the music I listen to resides. Promises is certainly not a bad album. It’s front-loaded with driving songs, few of which take hold, but its second half gets to the heart of this band’s magic. “New York” is a stately piano anthem that makes fine use of Nicholson’s tenor, and brings in some tremendous percussion. “You Belong to Me” is the quietest thing here, built on a circular piano figure and a pleading voice, while “Dream” reaches for great heights, and (mostly) reaches them.

I was definitely expecting better, though, and while I’m trying to hear that extraordinary alchemy on this album, it just isn’t here. I hope next time they remember how to capture it, because it was certainly something. The music on Promises isn’t bad – some of it is lovely, in fact – but it’s a shadow of the stunning work this band is capable of. I remain hopeful.

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Next week, Daft Punk, and maybe some other surprises. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date.

See you in line Tuesday morning.