Vampire Weekend’s Contra finds the New York indie quartet pulling more out of their Soweto vibe and dropping off some of the guitar spikiness found on their self-titled debut. For a second album, Contra is a step in the right direction for this band because it unearths a whole new bag of tricks for Ezra Koenig and the boys to play with.
Being New York’s “big thing” can be hard work (just ask The Strokes) and the scene of the city can eat many a young person alive with its incessant trendiness and gaudy pretentiousness. Yet there’s something entirely effortless about the way Vampire Weekend uses their indie chops to draw African music to the fore. And there’s something outrageously enjoyable about it, too.
Koenig is still every bit the joyously self-satisfied frontman he ought to be, though, and he attempts to draw rhymes out of damn near every bombastic term you can think of. Not every dork would attempt to rhyme “horchata” with “balaclava,” but he does so with satisfaction.
What makes Koenig’s smugness tolerable is the band’s expansive pursuit of fun.
Contra features a smoother sound than VW’s self-titled debut and the four’s use of synth loops and dancehall beats amid the soukous trots and indie pop portions serves to add layers as proof of a desire to grow.
“Horchata” starts things off with lovely use of percussion and volume. Koenig talks of drinking the titular beverage, a concoction popular in Latin America and served in Mexican restaurants in the U.S. The track’s liveliness is captivating, as strings and vibes fill the background with all the energy and colour of a Puerto Rican parade.
Vampire Weekend valiantly toys with synth-guided arena rock on “Giving Up the Gun,” offering a pulsating beat that U2 would be happy to have.
The appeal of Contra is in how uncomplicated this band makes everything sound. As they fluently file from the keen Joe Strummer homage of “Taxi Cab” to the M.I.A. samples found on “Diplomat’s Son,” Vampire Weekend demonstrates their capacity to shift gears without getting trapped in a web of gratuitous particulars.
Like the Sandinista! record that inspired this album’s title, Contra weaves in and out of eventful arrangements and genre mashups with the style, ease and poise of a group that’s been at this for ages. This is an album of development and fun, serving as a brisk channel to the vitality and high spirits of Vampire Weekend and solidifying them as a band to keep both ears on.
Contra is streaming now on Vampire Weekend's website.