Album review: Vampire Weekend — Contra (Jan. 2010)
This was first published January 24, 2010 in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.
Just before the weekend, Vampire Weekend’s (VW) “Contra” album hit #1 on the Billboard 200. In order to understand this achievement, we might require a cursory glance at their first effort — the self-titled Vampire Weekend album was largely simplistic in its verses, choruses and instrumentation. This formed part of its appeal — it was, after all, clever and refreshing melodic pop. As soon as some tracks hit the blogosphere, VW found themselves the darlings of both mainstream and indie media. They were immediately signed to XL Recordings, and many commentators, such as Spin magazine, named them the best new band of 2008. But the greatest question of all was whether they could repeat their success — make whatever formula they were using work again.
In fact, their new album, “Contra,” shouldn’t be properly understood except in direct contrast with its predecessor. Back when it came out, the most immediate objections people could think of about VW were the Ivy League clichés and playfully obscure references of frontman Ezra Koenig’s lyrics. One of the problems their debut suffered is that songs which tend to get stuck in your head are ultimately liable to be perceived as annoying. Other detractors chose to see the genre they’d created — “Upper West Side Soweto” in a long tradition of Westerners appropriating third-world/indigenous cultural art forms. Critics made easy and lazy comparisons to Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland.” But as other reviewers will likely note, VW have made a point, which they’ve stated in interviews, not to repeat the work of their debut. And it turns out that the band we hear on “Contra” is nothing like the one we previously knew.
The cool-down period of post-touring which resulted in this sophomore effort was clearly a fruitful one. The band has evolved from four college graduates seemingly messing around, not really being sure of what they’re doing, to four proficient musicians who complement each other flawlessly and foster bold experimentation with sound and songwriting. VW is now a real band, which no one should be embarrassed of admitting to like, who are engaged in the constant reinvention that is essential to keeping music new and interesting. Their keyboards, composed and performed by member and producer Rostam Batmanglij, have graduated from Casio to Korg. What was previously accompanied only by strings is now adorned with various mallets, synthesizers and odd electronic rhythms. The songs also benefit from substantially more parts, bridges and interludes. As before, virtually every track has the potential to be a hit; there is very little filler here.
One can admire how “Contra” was entirely self-produced, and therefore not beholden to any interference, and the basic rock ensemble (guitar, bass, drums) complemented by electronics seems a logical extension of how pop music should sound in this new decade. Their potential reminds one of the Talking Heads in the early 1980s; continuing to bear the diverse influences of Afro-pop, various world music, and even Ska and Trance. Obvious singles like “White Sky” and “Cousins” continue a pattern of eccentric vocals, hooks and intricately composed instrumental patterns. Koenig’s lyrics are often strikingly clever and imaginative. The band’s appeal is largely built on genre-bending and exploration. While they became known and popular faster than most bands, they are evidently determined to hold on to the attention, with the success of “Contra” therefore affirming that VW is eager to stay relevant and worthy of our ears.
In view of all this praise, you might be wondering: What is there to criticize? In a world where slightly avant-garde acts like Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors, (Koenig once toured with them as a member) are easily becoming popular, the revelation that is “Contra” only seems a little too late. The liberal inclusion of synthesizers, which sometimes borders on kitsch, has its precedents in the synth-pop of the 1980s or electronica of the 1990s. The tracks on “Contra,” especially their idiosyncratic rhythms and melodies, are highly constructed entities, which feel like a reaction against the background music that challenge or demand attention. One can only wonder why “Contra” hadn’t arrived sooner. The answer is that Vampire Weekend is a direct beneficiary of the new media explosion — which has allowed more artists to reach more people, at the cost of the destruction of the music industry’s former profit model.