Under Review: Vampire Weekend – Contra

Given how pleasant and breezy it is, I’m very surprised at how many people have strong feelings against the music of Vampire Weekend.  As a fan, I’m naturally perplexed.  I mean, being nonplussed by them is one thing, but I have heard people talk about the indie darlings as though they are the worst thing to happen to music.  From the first time I heard “Mansard Roof” in late 2007, I had an idea of the widespread fame and acclaim these youngsters would bring.  What I did not expect, though, was that they had an album as mature and complex Contra in them.  Where their hit-packed debut either won over hearts or turned away naysayers, Contra is likely to confound even the most devoted fans.  In a way, all great art should create such a visceral reaction, either pleasing or alienating a large group of people.  What makes Contra so unlike its predecessor is the production style.  Taking a cue from Discovery, his R&B/Electro collaboration with Ra Ra Riot’s Wes Miles, keyboardist/producer Rostam Batmanglij gives his proper band’s sound a reverby, synthetic groove.  The two songs that were released before the album itself gave conflicting impressions of their parent record.  “Cousins,” a blitz of a track with a twitchy, anxious rhythm, is the album’s most unnecessary song; not because it isn’t good (believe me, it is), but it’s the only song on the record that completely holds over the style of Vampire Weekend’s debut.  The other track, the calypso-flavored “Horchata,” is a much more representative sample of Contra’s mission.

Though some lyrics feature the military jargon implied by the album’s title, Contra isn’t preachy or overly political.  In fact, it uses those words of war to create stories of love and personal loss, a clever twisting of otherwise tactical terms.  Even without deep meanings behind the lyrics, the sprightly “White Sky” and “Holiday” and the big beat of “Giving Up The Gun” are destined to be future favorites.  Contra also has the band stepping outside their own limits, with “California English” employing a tiny bit of Auto-Tune, and “Diplomat’s Son” shifting times and weaving samples of M.I.A. and Toots Maytal through its six minutes.  The album closes with “I Think Ur A Contra,” which isn’t quite as Prince-y as you might think, but it’s the slowest track that VW have come up with so far.  It’s also one of the most heartbreaking, with Ezra’s vocals barely backed by a woozy organ and skittering guitar licks.  The plaintive, honest delivery is almost claustrophobic, but it’s another fine example of the risks taken on Contra.  Vampire Weekend have rather quickly evolved beyond their supposed flash-in-the-pan status.  I usually say that it’s the third album that defines a band’s career, but with a trajectory that presents us with an album like Contra so soon, there’s no telling what’s next for these guys.

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~ by E. on January 11, 2010.

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