2008 was a good year for Vampire Weekend. With a self-titled first album, the band crashed the indie pop party, bringing with it a fresh sound that combined Paul Simon-esque African beats with the floating, shrieking vocals of The Shins. Critics and fans alike loved the album. It seemed hard to top.
But if Contra is any indication, 2010 was even nicer to Vampire Weekend (well, except for the album’s cover star suing for $2 million because they used her photo without permission, but any press is good press, right?) The group’s sophomore album has more lyrical sophistication, a more layered sound, and a higher level of cohesion than Vampire Weekend. Elements of dub, ska, jazz, and the recently popular electronic indie pop popularized by Passion Pit and Phoenix replace those familiar African beats in most of the songs.
“Horchata” opens the album gently with bare instrumentals and calming imagery before launching into the synth-heavy and youthful “White Sky,” a song which is quite easy to listen to until the chorus. Vocalist Ezra Koenig can do some lovely vocal tricks, but they’re best when implemented sparingly. An entire chorus of prepubescent wailing conjures up images of a pale, nubile merman floundering about while singing Vampire Weekend songs. Not okay.
Two songs, “Holiday” and “Run,” both express a desire to get away, whether it’s just for a day to escape the fear and pressure of everyday life, or to just go for good and leave everything behind.
“Cousins,” an early single, offers a more punk-tinged foot-stomper with surf-inspired guitar work. “California English” has a cool, driving drum rhythm and an interesting effect on the vocals like a delay pedal, despite offering nonsensical lyrics that don’t really seem to be about anything besides an exercise in wordplay. This can be a drag, but it’s valid when in the context of such a strong LP.
The strongest song on Contra is “Diplomat’s Son,” a six-minute opus about the night when two best friends smoke a joint and find themselves in bed together. It’s a masterful combination of synth, a dub-style backing track featuring M.I.A., a sort of Caribbean drum beat, airy vocals, and clever storytelling lyrics. The tempo goes through changes, and different phases of the song show a new inventiveness that is hopefully only a taste of what’s to come from Vampire Weekend.
The final track, “I Think UR A Contra,” is another great amalgam of different influences with a more nostalgic and sentimental tone.
Contra is undoubtedly one of the best indie albums of 2010. It is cohesive, creative, and well-executed. The songs that are unexceptional are listenable at least, and quite good at most. The best part of the album is the Vampire Weekend’s ability to use so many musical influences so fluidly, demonstrating a keen reactionary ability as well as talent and musical sensibility. This group has a bright future if they continue to grow and follow their instincts.