Vampire Weekend, Contra
By wes jakacki
January 12, 2010
No one can ever fault Vampire Weekend for taking themselves too seriously.
The New York quartet hasn’t been afraid to poke fun at their Ivy League background, and their the band’s fun, tongue-in-cheek approach worked beautifully on their highly-acclaimed self-titled debut, where the preppy and peppy Columbia University grads mixed their privileged background (1800’s Baroque music, cultured lyrics) with the music of the working class (i.e. Afro-pop, punk) to make one strange but affable mix. While their debut was remarkable, there was strong belief among the musical community that their act would wear thin and the band would not be able to reproduce the debut’s magic. Fortunately for us, the Vampire Weekend soars on their sophomore effort Contra, which finds the foursome using all sorts of bells and whistles and expanding their musical palette to make them more than just pop punk for pretentious twenty-somethings.
The album opens in true Vampire Weekend style with "Horchata", which couples Ezra Koenig's voice with a Kalimba thumb piano as Koenig opens with some grandiose wordplay, "In December drinking horchata, I’d look psychotic in a balaclava.” While this moment may lead you to want to brush off the album as pretentious, luckily, this is as wordy as it gets. The rest of “Horchata“ serves as a fine display of the more layered, eclectic sound of Contra with, sleigh bells, thumping bass, some electronic touches,
and swirling strings in Bollywood fashion.
Contra has Vampire Weekend showing less of their educational pedigree (beside the occasional obscure cultural reference) and more of their musical pedigree, delving into a wide range of genres and finding great success. The band takes a cue or two from M.I.A., taking on world music influences from India (“Horchata”), Africa (“Diplomat’s Son”) and Latin America (“Giving Up the Gun”, “Run”) and even a sample from M.I.A.‘s “Hussel” (“Diplomat’s Son”).
This world-tour theme doesn’t just apply to the band’s sound, but is reflected in Contra’s lyrics. Instead of singing about chasing girls around Columbia’s campus or questioning the importance of the Oxford Comma, Contra takes on political issues, much of the focus being on war. On the two-minute ska-punk of “Holiday”, which makes for a wonderful musical retreat from a harsh winter (if you indeed have one), the song’s lyrics follow a girl who makes the decision to go vegetarian in reaction to the beginning of the Iraq War. "Giving Up The Gun" is one of the album’s most epic tracks, and is an anthem to the pacifist, “Your sword‘s grown old and rusty/Burnt beneath the rising sun/It’s locked up like a trophy/Forgetting all the things it‘s done“. “Run” finds Koenig wanting to retreat from the American live-to-work lifestyle, with the building horns and crashing cymbals crescendoing to a blissful musical escape. “I Think Ur A Contra” is the album closer and reason for the album title, the song has Koenig examining relational trust through a militant perspective.
It’s fairly difficult to argue a weak point on Contra, as all 10 tracks can truly stand on their own and could probably work as singles. Conversely, there are a few major highlights. "White Sky" finds Koenig summoning fellow New Yorker Paul Simon via Graceland on its verses, before yelping and cooing his way through an incredibly memorable wordless chorus. “California English” is really hip hop disguised as high speed punk pop as it crams, calypso rhythms, speedy guitar riffs, pop culture references galore, a bit of a rap from Koenig, and even some auto-tune for what makes for an exhilarating, head-spinning ride, “Taxi Cab” can be almost lost in the blaze of the album, but the album’s most understated track fits beautifully after the non-stop glitchiness of “California English”, as the songs running classical piano, strong bass line, and harpsichord break gives it a haunting beauty reminiscent of a Clash ballad, making it one of the best Contra has to offer. “A-Punk", Vampire Weekend's smash breakthrough hit, is given a run for its money with the irresistible single "Cousins". "Cousins" has drummer Chris Tomson tearing through the track, as the guitars blaze in surf rock style and Koenig plays around both lyrically and vocally.
Contra is full of evidence of Ezra Koenig’s development as a frontman and shows he has really come into his own. He sounds sincere and confident throughout Contra, and while he may sound nothing like David Byrne, he has developed Byrne’s chameleon-like vocal capabilities to use his voice as an instrument wherever or however it may be needed. Whether it is falsetto yelps (“White Sky”), a quick rap (“California English”), or a delicate croon (“I Think Ur A Contra”), Koenig shines. That’s not to say the rest of the band doesn’t, as Rostam Batmanglij contributed in a huge way with his versatility by singing back up, playing keys, guitar, and doing most of the fabulous production on the album. The rhythm section, consisting of Chris Tomson on drums/percussion and Chris Baio on bass, are unbelievably impressive with their ability to take on several different genre styles, especially some highly difficult Latin and African percussion styles.
The viral marketing campaign for Contra came as a surprise to many and created a lot of buzz for the album‘s release. The band released the album’s cover, a photo of a blonde woman in a polo shirt, on several music websites, releasing no information on the photo’s origins, far before the album’s details were revealed. In the same vein, Vampire Weekend’s Contra will surprise many who blew off the band as pretentious, over-privileged one album wonders. Sure, it may seem silly to say, considering it’s only second week of the year, but Contra is sure to be one of the most fun albums of 2010—and one of its best.