The indie follow-up you’ll love to hate
Vampire Weekend is the band that music snobs with selective tastes and struggling musicians collecting unemployment love to hate. And if you thought the conceptual art-school scene that turned New York into a post-punk revival circa 2000 were pretentious, Vampire Weekend is the pastel-loving, boat shoe-wearing group of Ivy League-bred musicians who have taken that word, flipped it upside down and popped its collar.
But these are the boys who don’t give “a f—” about an Oxford comma, and, instead of giving into the backlash from its 2008 self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend follows it with an album full of the same vigor and intensity. Although it’s easy to hate what the band stands for, Contra — the prepsters’ latest studio album — is really, really difficult to dislike.
Sunny, spacious and intoxicatingly melodic, Contra is a fuller, more intricate and hook-heavy record than the band’s debut. Lyrically, guitarist and lead vocalist Ezra Koenig and his cronies have matured, though that’s not to say they weren’t articulate or eloquent enough from the start. The pre-Contra Vampire Weekend was teeming with subtle critiques on hipster culture with references to buying apartments in Washington Heights (a section of Manhattan) and love interests adorned in keffiyahs.
But the arrival of their sophomore effort also represents a resurgence of ethnic world music into the predominantly white-washed indie genre, a newfound burst of flavor that has been seen locally in Los Angeles in the form of the multilingual, afro-pop inspired Fool’s Gold.
Perhaps most significantly, Vampire Weekend adds much needed, and appreciated, touches of sun to the often dreary Northeastern skies and flashes of not-so-pastel color to the muted grays and browns of the Manhattan skyline. From a 21st century New Yorker’s perspective, it’s the type of album that will get you through the brisk and bleak winter days.
Contra begins with a sunrise and a warm morning breeze as you sip horchata on a veranda overlooking a palm tree-studded beach. As the band’s first single, “Horchata,” — which was released as a free download on the band’s website last October —with its airy vocals and fluid construction, ushers the listener into Contra and, ultimately, Vampire Weekend’s idealistic world.
Following “Horchata” is the sugary, hook-driven “White Sky” and the toe-tapping “Holiday.” Just as you’ve warmed up, Vampire Weekend slows the pacing with “Taxi Cab,” the album’s brightest spot that conjures the sights and sounds of Manhattan with its intricate instrumentation that never clashes but is instead sweetly cohesive — just like the city.
“Taxi Cab” is only a mellow interlude, however, as Contra continues on its cloudless day with the racing “Cousins” and fizzling “Giving Up the Gun.”
Toward the album’s end, “Diplomat’s Son,” which dabbles in the rhythms of reggae, acts as the post-dinner walk around the block — upbeat but languid, it wanders in circles with no sense of urgency or purpose.
And as the sunlight begins to fade, so does Contra with its hazy closer, “I Think Ur A Contra.” An offbeat lullaby, Koenig’s voice is strained and worn yet brimming with emotion as he nearly whispers But I just wanted you. The song abruptly ends after several counts of softly rattling maracas, which is a bit premature for a tune that feels like it still has verses left. The result is an album that feels rushed rather than complete.
It might be early to call, but Contra will most likely be 2010’s Merriweather Post Pavilion — the Animal Collective album that topped nearly every rock music magazine’s best-of list — well thought-out and neatly put together but hardly groundbreaking in sound or substance.
The fault of Vampire Weekend lies within the band’s influences, which is said to be 1970s new wave like Talking Heads and legendary punk rock like The Clash.
Yes, musically, punk is classified by stripped-bare instrumentation and hard, fast-paced songs, which Vampire Weekend embodies in its own tropical way. But as it was born from a rebellion against the mainstream rock music of the time, punk is also typified by attitude, a trait that has become synonymous with the genre. It is a quality that Vampire Weekend lacks and proves detrimental when those expecting more edge or ambition from a band that cites Joe Strummer as an influence fails to deliver outside its own Upper West Side box.
But these are the boys who care as much about taking a stance as they do about an Oxford comma. Contra plays it safe, and Vampire Weekend wouldn’t have it any other way.