Thursday, May 23

Soundbite: Vampire Weekend’s “Contra”


From its beginning, Vampire Weekend’s “Contra” perpetuates the band’s mission statement ­”“ to simply produce charming, well-executed pop songs and not reinvent the wheel.

Such straightforward consistency only makes the divisiveness that surrounds the New York foursome all the more puzzling. Though their self-titled Afropop-inspired debut was nearly unanimously lauded by critics, the Columbia graduates, armed with at times hyper-literate lyrics and an ostensibly preppy J. Crew pretention to their step, often found themselves mired in as much backlash as praise.

At the crux of a debate that can best be described as the blogosphere equivalent of the East-West schism, Vampire Weekend does not use its second album as an opportunity to extend an olive branch to those put off by their previous record.

If anything, the pronounced contrasts present throughout “Contra” only further alienate those detractors as the album pushes the distinct Vampire Weekend sound a step further. The scant darker, sentimental tones largely missing from the first album are prominently on display on “Contra.” This is especially noticeable on the album closer, “I Think UR A Contra,” where lead singer Ezra Koenig sings from a truly vulnerable perch for the first time. In contrast, the light, fun pop that the band is known for is taken to new heights, particularly on the infectious mid-album tracks, “Run” and “Cousins.”

This juxtaposition derives as much from the band’s quiet confidence in their sound and lyrics as the matured, steady-handed production of keyboard player Rostam Batmanglij. The richly textured, composed feel of “Taxi Cab” features a cello, a springy diving board beat, and a generous portion of serene keyboard, all accompanying restrained vocals.

Batmanglij’s intricate production has muted the feverish excitement of the first album, yet the energy isn’t reduced as much as harnessed for nuggets of explosion, as in “Run.” Yet “Contra’s” sophistication in production and additional layers does render itself less immediately accessible than its predecessor. Tracks such as “White Sky” and “Holiday,” while endlessly hummable in their own rights, never reach the catchy levels of soon-to-be karaoke staple “A-Punk,” off of the band’s debut.

Perhaps another reason “Contra” is less immediately rewarding is the incorporation of a variety of new influences. This time around, the band is more ambitious with their influences, seamlessly using Auto-Tune in “California English” without sounding redundant. Elsewhere, the band wears its influences on its sleeves (sampling M.I.A. on “Diplomat’s Son”) and reaches into their musical back pocket (the ska-influenced “Holiday”).

Still, despite a smorgasbord of influences, the band largely maintains the aesthetics that they cultivated over their short first disc, largely due to clever songwriting. Koenig’s voice is that of a somewhat detached participant in the clamor of the elite. This singular position allows him to be a perfect ambassador for the rich, crooning about his relationship’s failure at the hands of “good schools” and “friends with pools” in “I Think UR A Contra” while staying utterly relatable as a man who feels betrayed.

The first song released for download during “Contra’s” viral publicity campaign, the album’s initial track “Horchata,” is telling of the direction that Vampire Weekend inevitably takes “Contra”. Masked under the heavy makeup of Animal Collective-like percussion, “Horchata” is at once completely foreign and immediately recognizable. Yet most importantly, it is ridiculously fun.

“Contra” is by no means a game-changing album, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it’s an amplified collection of engaging, heavily detailed pop songs that proves Vampire Weekend isn’t just a passing sensation.

E-mail Lu at [email protected]

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