Release Date: Jan 12, 2010
Record label: XL
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Pop
Brainy indie upstarts prove masterful debut was no fluke Vampire Weekend’s debut cartwheeled gleefully from one infectious musical idea to the next, seducing listeners with a syrupy-sweet cocktail of Afro-pop, squeaky-clean ’60s surf rock and harpsichord passages that nodded at Mark Mothersbaugh’s playful compositions on Wes Anderson soundtracks. It was hard to listen to that first batch of tunes without sensing vast stores of glittering pop left to mine in the endlessly forking creative arteries beneath the band’s goofy, cardigan-wrapped exterior. On their second LP, the youngsters don’t disappoint.
Vampire Weekend's second album starts with "Horchata", ostensibly a punching bag for people who didn't like their first one. Singer Ezra Koenig rhymes "horchata" with "balaclava", while keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij arranges the song around the polite plinks of marimbas. It's a sweatless calypso, buttoned-up and breezy. So, of course, haters will still find plenty to hate about Contra, and they'll hate it with vigor.
The Ivy League-educated New Yorkers' second album continues their unlikely but successful mission to place African music at the epicentre of indie rock, even introducing steel drums to the band's shimmering high-life sound. However, Contra differs from their 2008 debut – it's smoother, less spiky, with less guitars and elements of everything from synthesiser loops to flirtations with dancehall, ska and disco. Less appealing is the slightly smug feeling to Ezra Koenig's more pointless lyrics – such as the very first couplet, in which he rhymes "drinking horchata" with "look psychotic in a balaclava".
Nearly two years to the date that their self-titled debut set off a myriad of arguments in indie-rock circles, Vampire Weekend has released Contra, another album of classically minded, Afro-pop-ripping, brittle, bookish pop. Expecting anything different would be like bracing for snow in Ghana in July. Vampire Weekend ignited debates that have smoldered for two years: about African-music grave-robbing by privileged whites, about authenticity vs.
A sophomore album wasn't going to be easy for the entitled lot behind prep-pop band Vampire Weekend. Their self-titled debut was instantly successful with the picnic crowd, but suffered from over-saturation. [rssbreak] Admirably, Contra isn't a knee-jerk response to their debut's detractors. They haven't altered what worked two years ago.
Vampire Weekend get a lot of flak for allegedly being ‘elitist’. It’s not hard to see why: besides being young, preppy (read: snobby), and dressing in sweater-vests and boat shoes, they also happen to write songs like Oxford Comma. While on the one hand they’re fond of discussing points of grammar on which the verdict from style manual editors is still out, and penning lines like “Spilled kefir on your keffiyah”, this is also the band that sang, “Why would you lie ‘bout how much coal you have? Why would you lie ‘bout something dumb like that?” Contra’s opening track, Horchata, drew the ire of internet pundits everywhere for rhyming horchata with Aranciata, then with Masada, but come on—I can buy horchata (or Aranciata, for that matter) vacuum-packed at a supermarket 10 minutes’ drive away.
What’s been the focal point of Vampire Weekend’s appeal—and what has attracted just as many detractors as it’s afforded them rabid enthusiasts—is their use of juxtaposition. It isn’t a subtle component of their overall makeup, either, as a passing glance at the cover for their sophomore album illustrates immediately: a blandly pretty blonde in a polo shirt that sports a popped-collar stares blankly with the title, Contra, laying across her chest, a political term that will likely pass over the heads of a majority of the band’s fanbase. As soon as the group burst onto the indie scene just a few short years ago (although it seems a lifetime in today’s unquenchable culture of instant gratification), their Ivy League backgrounds meshed up like clingy static friction against their approach to indie pop.
Any fears that the zippy Afro-pop of these New York-based hipsters was a novelty – so very 2008 – are quickly dispelled on this confident and completely entertaining second album. Yes, the opening couplet ("In December drinking horchata/ I'd look psychotic in a balaclava") sounds like the work of someone who got a dictionary for Christmas, but there the clever-clever archness ends. Contra, like its predecessor, spills over with limber rhythms and percussive bounce, evoking sunny, "exotic" climes far from ice-cool Manhattan.
About two years ago, four bright-eyed young Ivy Leaguers broke from indie rock’s studiedly scruffy ranks with an exuberant fusion of sunny Afro-pop rhythms and prep-school panache they dubbed ”Upper West Side Soweto. ” Within several months, a top 20 full-length debut, high-profile TV gigs (SNL, Letterman), and breathless critical acclaim followed. Vampire Weekend were as close to instant alt-stars as the fragmented music industry is capable of conjuring up these days.
For all the kind words that greeted Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album, two years on, it’s not hard to detect a cooling of the air. Specifically, matters seem to have advanced from it merely being mandatory to describe the New York quartet as ‘preppy’; these days it’s in vogue to characterise – sometimes dismiss – the band as actively privileged or posh. Do people mean it? Should Vampire Weekend fear revolt amongst the serfs? Prooooooooobably not.
The best thing about Vampire Weekend’s debut album was the joy inherent in a lot of the chords, vocals, and progressions, like one of Paul McCartney’s mouth-agape head-nods set to music. That’s really what it came down to for me, and once I was hooked I found myself singing along and — curse of all curses — Getting Behind this whole Vampire Weekend thing. It was twee done the right way, and if they wanted to do Paul Simon’s afro-fied rock-as-half-a-rhumba schtick, I didn’t mind, long as they sounded like they meant it.
Vampire Weekend's eponymous 2008 debut proved a rare pop triumph, succeeding in its creation of an entire aesthetic – Ivy League Afro-pop. The New York quartet works its way out of that corner on its meticulous sculpted sophomore LP, Contra, branching out with tangents into kinetic ska-punk ("Holiday," "Cousins") and hyper dancehall music (the magnificent "Giving Up the Gun" and Auto-Tuned "California English"). Produced once more by keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, the album succeeds largely through the melding of his electronic-pop side project Discovery with his more classically minded string arrangements, as evinced by the delicate "Taxi Cab" and festive, horn-accented "Run.
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.