Label: XL Records
by Jon Gomes
It’s almost exactly two years since the world got its first taste of Vampire Weekend. The self-titled debut was, in essence, four white boys from Columbia University curiously fiddling with African rumba beats and singing about oxford commas and Peter Gabriel. Though the description suggests typical indie pomp and pretense, the final product turned out to be one of the most memorable releases of 2008.
Suffice it to say, then, that anxious ears have been anticipating the band’s sophomore release, entitled Contra, for quite a while. Probably the most pressing question was whether or not the band would maintain the characteristic sound established on their first album. The answer is not readily clear, but after a spin or two, Contra feels like the natural next step from the self-titled debut.
The lead track “Horchata” delivers the buoyant melodies and quirky lyrics one would expect, but also explores new sonic territory with its prominent xylophone romps. Lead singer Ezra Koenig sings as if you’re in the room with him: “In December / Drinking horchata / I look psychotic in a balaclava.” The song transitions almost imperceptibly into “White Sky,” which features a falsetto melody that sticks to the ears like sugar coating.
Like its predecessor, Contra evokes a sense of mirth; it is very much an audio accompaniment to summertime frolics or lazy sunny afternoons. Though the spirit is shared, the music on Contra is more adventurous. The beautifully disjointed “California English” sounds like an unreleased Animal Collective b-side, while the spunky “Cousins” flurries with sixteenth-note guitar runs and snare rolls.
There are occasional moments where Contra sounds conventional, but only in a relative sense. The saccharine, straightforward pop hooks in “Giving Up the Gun” are atypical for the band—strings are traded for synths and the rhyming isn’t outlandish. Still, Vampire Weekend renders the song in such a way that it feels familiar.
To balance out the newer sounds, there is still plenty of classic material; syncopated rhythms, string flourishes, and sunny lyrics abound in tracks like “Run” and “Diplomat’s Son.” The latter is six minutes of rocksteady rhythms and cryptic lyrics that hint at the 1981 Contra movement in Nicaragua—just the kind of madness you would expect from Vampire Weekend. Contra coasts to a stop with the subdued “I Think Ur A Contra.” A gorgeous, acoustic guitar-based melody underlies the gentle yet accusatory lyrics: “I think you’re Contra / I think that you lie / Don’t call me Contra / Till you’ve tried.” It’s absolutely sublime.
So what does “Contra” have to do with anything? The band chose the term as the album’s title to suggest opposition against external expectations. According to singer Ezra Koenig, the album is a reaction to the media pigeonholing the band as erudite, polo-wearing preps from Columbia (bluntly illustrated by the album cover). For Vampire weekend, Contra is uncompromised self-expression. It’s not an extension of the first album, but rather an evolution that still sounds very much like Vampire Weekend. Though Contra is not intended to cater to anyone’s expectations, it ends up surpassing them.