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Music Review: Vampire Weekend – Contra

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Sophomore jitters would be natural. How could any band live up to the hype and buzz lavished on Vampire Weekend’s self-titled 2008 debut? Even worse, when everyone’s raved about your “fresh,” “new,” “original” sound – what path do you take? Dig farther into that stylistic groove and you’re imitating yourselves; invent a different “new” sound for Album Number Two and you’ve abandoned your roots.

Yet with cool self-confidence, Vampire Weekend has jumped off that cliff, and their second release, Contra, pops right up to the surface and takes off swimming. This record still jangles with the band’s trademark world music underpinnings – a veritable U.N. of sounds (Mexicali, ska, Bollywood, dancehall, reggaeton, West African pop) – filigreed with classical flourishes (harpsichord counterpoint, baroque strings). Within that familiar framework, on Contra Vampire Weekend extends its brand carefully, addressing new themes and wider emotional territory. Success hasn’t mellowed them; it’s only confirmed their personality, packing their aural textures more densely, with a recording style that’s lusher and (marginally) less spiky.

As on the previous album, their songs are mostly cryptic diary entries set to music. Rather than universalizing their experience – how 20th century! — they simply allow us to peek into their lives. Granted, there’s a sort of reality show fascination about observing this privileged milieu — midtown Manhattan office jobs, post-grad stints in England, uniformed doormen, trust fund babies, polished wastrels in cars with diplomat plates. With all the coded cultural references, you don’t need to see the band’s usual preppie stage get-ups to know that they’re a bunch of Ivy League grads, well-traveled and insanely well-read.

“In the winter I drink Horchata,” the first track begins; “I look psychotic in a balaclava” — a globe-trotter’s mash-up of fashion notes, foodie references, and shrink talk, and that’s just the first seven seconds of the CD. You practically need a handbook to get all the Manhattan references in the calypso-accented “White Sky,” or the LA-to-UK nexus of “California English,” with its rippling AutoTuned vocals. (Score an extra 50 points on your SATs if you know what the Hapa Club is.)

It should be off-putting, but crazily enough, it’s not — maybe because they’re as dissatisfied with that life as we are with ours. As the title Contra suggests, it’s a CD about warring impulses, hypocrisy, opposites that fatally attract. I have to laugh at the world weariness of this bunch of 20-somethings – singing wistfully, in “Horchata,” “Years go by and hearts start to harden.” They long to escape from life’s pressures in the perky “Holiday” and more urgent “Run”; they look back wistfully over doomed love affairs in “Taxi Cab,” “Diplomat’s Son,” and “I Think U R A Contra.”

Ultimately, what really rescues this album is its tuneful pop hooks and killer rhythm section. Drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio are as crucial to this band’s dynamic as the more visible singer-songwriters Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmangli. No matter how layered its polyrhythms become, you never lose that essential beat groove, in most cases a contagiously bright and bouncy one. Even as “Taxi Cab” and “I Think U R a Contra” drift into more pensive territory (“I Think U R a Contra” even goes acoustic), they’re hardly ballads.

The melodic poppiness and the ironic lyrics seal the deal, in a way; they save Vampire Weekend from sounding like they take themselves too seriously — no small feat, when you’ve been toasted as the Next Hot Thing for two years running. The tracks are still taut and economical, with minimal intros and abbreviated riffs; even the few songs that run over four minutes (“Diplomat’s Son” lasts 6:01) are developed like movements in a symphony, rather than prolonged with mindless repetition. There’s a very good reason why this music appeals to the ADD generation.

Bottom line: You’ll come out humming these tunes. That was what grabbed me about the first album, and it’s even more true about the second one. It’s vintage Vampire Weekend — the same as ever, only more so.

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About Holly Hughes

  • By the way, I saw them perform live tonight, up at the United Palace Ballroom in upper Manhattan. They are such a tight, crisp band, with engaging stage presence — really a joy to watch. Watching them perform made me even more aware of how each of their songs is a cunning jigsaw, all the elements nesting inside just so. They sang practically every song from their two albums, and the audience sang every word with them — we were even singing those intricate keyboard minuet-like riffs. It was a joy from start to finish.

  • I hate to be a trendoid — you know I do — but these kids may really be onto something. I love the fact that no other bands have really been able yet to rip off their style; there’s just way too much involved for it to be cut-and-pasted.

    Did you resist the first one too? You are made of stern stuff indeed.

  • Josh Hathaway

    Holly, you, Saleski, and Tom Johnson have nearly talked me into this one. My “resistance” is weakening as my curiosity grows.