2008’s most atypical indie rock success story sure has its fair share of haters. While Vampire Weekend’s debut was indeed a clever and dexterous display of post-Paul Simon Afropop, it was derided by many as a somewhat pretentious affair that prized grammatical syntax and socioeconomic status over accessibility. To a public largely raised on the flamboyant antics of Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper, a band comprised of privileged middle class kids with college degrees might indeed appear a tad elitist. No drinking binges or drug overdoses, no broken homes, no tortured artists; just four highly educated friends who looked like they jumped out of a J Crew catalog. If Lemmy Kilmeister feels most comfortable in black leather, then Ezra Koenig probably prefers a wooly cardigan.
Much flaunted backstory aside, Vampire Weekend’s music was every bit deserving of the hype. Meticulously crafted indie pop nuggets with earworm melodies and hypnotic polyrhythms are hard to resist, whether you know what a mansard roof is or not. Dictionaries and Ivy League educations simply weren’t prerequisites for enjoyment of these playful summertime jams. And like the Strokes and Arcade Fire before them, VW has now set the bar impossibly high in anticipation of their follow-up LP. With the intense touring schedule the band undertook over the past two years in support of its self-titled album, it’s impressive that it found the time at all to write a batch of new songs, let alone flesh them out in a recording studio. Better yet is that the end result, Contra, finds the group’s global influences rapidly growing while still retaining the basic formula that won their first album so much critical acclaim. Not surprisingly, everything they attempt – from dancehall to Bollywood to reggae – is executed with precision and an inspired sense of effortlessness.
Chances are, you’ve already downloaded two Contra tracks that are testimony to this; the stylistic DNA of “Cousins” and “Horchata” are worlds apart from one another, and yet neither track could be the work of any other band. The former is one of the most frenetic and punky cuts Vampire Weekend has ever laid down, utilizing its standard instrumentation in aberrant ways. The guitar playing borders on spastic, yet the exhibition of technique is astounding. The same goes for the rhythm section; Chris Baio lays down a fantastically rubbery bass line while Chris Tomlinson channels Ron Wilson on some great surf rock drum fills. By contrast, “Horchata” is so serene that it seems perfectly tailored to a lazy summer afternoon spent lying on a hammock slung between two palm trees. Ezra Koenig’s breezy vocal hooks are instantly singable and are a fitting compliment to Rostam Batmanglij’s kalimba thumb piano. As you get lost in Tomlinson’s flurry of auxiliary percussion and the harmonized female backup vocals, the presence of some synth textures might go unnoticed. Delightfully odd lines like, “In December drinking horchata / I’d look psychotic in a balaclava” are much harder to ignore, however.
The album’s first half is its most varied, opening with the aforementioned homage to the rice-infused libation of Latin America before moving into a skittering triplet groove on “White Sky.” Koenig’s vocals are highly entertaining squeals of delight, deliriously happy in their execution. At the same time, the disparate rhythms of the synth bass, drums, and hand claps bounce around the mix. “Holiday” takes the band into third-wave ska territory and “California English” makes some unexpected use of Auto-Tune. While no one would question that the group used the audio processor more for textural effect than for pitch correction, it unfortunately gives the song a slightly dated quality. “Taxi Cab” is the album’s first proper ballad material, featuring Batmanglij’s twinkling piano melodies and some subtle dancehall synths juxtaposed by Koenig’s intimate vocals and lush string orchestrations.
Though the second half of Contra relies more heavily on electronic flourishes, it also features some of the band’s most killer hooks and riffs. “Run” mingles a reggaeton groove in the verse with an anthemic stadium rock chorus in which Chris Tomson lays down his own version of the “Sunday Bloody Sunday” drum part. With all the burbling electronics and thumpy bass, the song bears more similarities to Passion Pit than it does Peter Gabriel. At more than six minutes in length, “Diplomat’s Son” is one of VW’s grandest statements, imbued with off-kilter percussion, string swells, and even a small M.I.A. sample. While making a nod to both the Clash and the right wing militant federation of late 1970’s Nicaragua in the melancholy closer “I Think UR a Contra,” we find the boys examining the effects of a failed relationship as Koenig sings, “I think that you’re a contra / I think that you lie.” The song also happens to feature the first use of acoustic guitar on a VW record; shocking given the African influence that pervades most of their work.
The haters are missing out on something utterly brilliant. Maybe this is in fact the stuff of indie snobbery, but Vampire Weekend’s penchant for throwing an occasional obscure reference into their work doesn’t change the fact that Contra is an obvious early contender for one of 2010’s best.