Album Reviews

Vampire Weekend – Contra

on January 11, 2010, 3:15am
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What’s the appeal of Vampire Weekend? No, really. If they were anyone else, you’d probably think they were stuck up elitists — assholes even. (Hell, a few people out there think that already.) They smirk behind polished Ray-Ban’s, they sing about weekend getaways to Cape Cod, and their frontman looks like the spokesman for Polo half of the time. On top of that, they’re an outfit of crisp, white New Englanders, who write music that’s drenched in African popular music. To sheepishly borrow from Keenan Thompson (of SNL), “What up with that?”

There’s a lot up with that. This band, led by the timid yet clever Ezra Koenig, knows how to write a pop tune, and better yet, they know how to make it sound interesting. That’s a pretty inviting concept nowadays: “interesting.” It’s also something that has about a million different definitions and an infinite number of arguments behind it. But, at the end of the day, most can agree that “interesting” is something that sparks the brain and stops us in our tracks, even if it’s only for a split second.

With Vampire Weekend, they’ve managed to stop people for a good 34 minutes and 13 seconds, which is exactly how long their seminal 2008 debut is. Not once does the 11-track record release you from its vice-like grip; no, it’s pure pop brilliance, and explains note-for-note why these New York brats have the world by the eyes and ears. Some will disagree, mostly those who still think they’re an overhyped product, but it’s hard to argue when their tour sells out in seconds and thousands flood their stage at each and every festival. Successful? Let’s just say they never had a chance to be a true indie band.

But success is a dangerous thing and it presents hurdle after hurdle — for these folks, the sophomore album. This doesn’t seem to phase them, however. Returning two years after they knocked on our doors, Vampire Weekend presents Contra, a similar offering to their titular debut, only with one less song and two extra minutes to dwell in. One glance at the tracklist (“Horchata”, “California English”, and “Diplomat’s Son”) promises that things haven’t changed too much, either. They’re still the “preppies” you hate to adore.

That’s because, in some respects, Contra is more or less a re-visit to their debut. They continue to recount insightful vacations (“Horchata”, “Holiday”), they’re still hung up over dialects (“California English”), and they even manage to throw in another punchy single a la “A-Punk” (“Cousins”). But, there are differences. “Taxi Cab” slows things down, letting Koenig croon vaguely over Rostam Batmanglij’s elegant piano work, resulting in one memorable ballad to return to again and again. While “Giving Up the Gun” sees the band exploring more digital territory, even if it oddly resembles a Postal Service number. Seriously, when Koenig chimes in and waftly sings, “Your sword’s grown old and rusty,” you’d be hard pressed to think it was anyone other than Ben Gibbard. But, there’s more.

This album is stuffed with highlight after highlight. “White Sky” may be no real surprise, considering the band’s been playing it live since the debut hit streets, but on record, Koenig’s yelp and Chris Baio’s fluorescent bass line really speak new tongues. “California English” stops and goes, running on vocoders and pre-recorded harmonies, but the real joy lies in the skeletal guitar work that brings the digital work back to Earth. “Run” oozes with flavorful percussion as Chris Tomson exchanges one toe-tingling beat for another. When Koenig sings, almost as if he’s sighing, “Honey, with you/It’s the only honest way to go,” you’re pretty much sold on the guy.

But, that’s the real treat about Vampire Weekend. Within their rich, textured soundscapes lies their true flesh and blood, naked from Polo shirts or upper class references. We may not know any Diplomat’s sons, but we can revel in the song’s lush imagery (“On a night when the moon glows yellow in the riptide/With the light from the TVs buzzing in the house”) and connect with the melody to understand what Koenig’s getting at when he says, “I can’t go back to how I felt before.” Even if there isn’t a connection, like say on “I Think Ur A Contra” (arguably the weaker track here), you have to admire the musicianship, which is hands down exceptional.

Oddly enough, Contra isn’t the sophomore album we expected. It’s not a rehash, but it’s not an outright departure, either. Instead, it’s an amicable blend of the two. There’s enough to love on first listen, but there’s a lot to appreciate on future returns. And although you still may despise the band’s kitschy and trendy demeanor, you’d be lying if you didn’t snag a melody or two for yourself down the road. Rest assured, you’re not alone. Vampire Weekend is popular for a reason. They’re “interesting,” and if this sophomore album is any consideration of their lasting power, let’s just say they bought themselves two more years. Home run, preppies.

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