We Got the Beat
Update: Vampire Weekend tops the charts with 'Contra'
Editors note: "Contra," the second album from Vampire Weekend, shot to the top of the Billboard album charts in its first week of release. Read our review and listen to a few tracks from the New York afro-beat indie rock band.
I approached "Contra," the highly anticipated sophomore record by Vampire Weekend, with great trepidation. The preppy Ivy Leaguers with a penchant for marrying indie rock with African flourishes were a bona fide sensation upon their arrival on the scene in 2007. A touch of artiness and a heaping of intellectual wiliness, Vampire Weekend came across as a neutered mix between "Graceland"-era Paul Simon and early Talking Heads. Their self-titled debut was good, but a bit too wholesome for my taste. It lacked the power and self-confidence to really triumph. It tiptoed its way on, and then rather quickly off, my iPod, relegated to the heap of young bands that fell short of greatness. (Others in this company include Bon Iver, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Fleet Foxes. I know, controversial selections, to say the least, but I'll defend 'em.)
With muted expectations, I dove into "Contra," and after only the first few notes of the opening track, "Horchata," my ears perked up. The song bounces along with all the sweetness of the cinnamon rice milk of its namesake. But unlike the limp and hollow sound that dominated the debut, "Horchata" possesses more muscle and texture, thanks in large part to the rhythm section propelled by the frenzied drumming of Chris Tomson and help from some programmed beats. The treacly vocal stylings of Ezra Koenig, which make Paul Simon sound almost punk rock in comparison, desperately needs this propulsive force of the musical accompaniment. Indeed, the sweetness of Koenig's voice meshes perfectly with the wild abandon of the percussion and the snaky African-inspired guitar lines, and when the band sticks to this formula, the record succeeds.
The "Diplomat's Son" finds the band experimenting with '80s synth-pop and a reggae backbeat to great effect, while "California English" is a frenetic pop gem that features processed vocals (could it actually be a winning use of a Autotune? I think so!). Koenig's deliciously clean and simple guitar runs, a swirling string arrangement and some clever lyrics take a woman to task for her eco-posturing: "Sweet carob rice cakes, you don't care how the sweets taste/Fake Philly cheesesteak but you use real toothpaste/'Cause if that Tom's don't work, if it just makes you worse/Would you still lose all of your faith in the good earth?"
Unfortunately, "Contra" can't sustain the charm of the aforementioned highlights. "Cousins" comes across like a limp attempt at early XTC, while "White Sky" sounds so much like a "Graceland" outtake that it crosses the line from being imitation as the sincerest form of flattery to downright theft. The closing track, "I Think UR A Contra," is a meandering string-laden ballad that's pleasant but boring. By this point, Koenig's vocals become bogged down in syrupy sweetness.
Overall, the band does deserve credit for crafting an album that's much more developed and imaginative than its predecessor. The sophisticated arrangements burst with color and class, and the lyrics come across with much less of the insulated Ivy League worldview found on the debut. Fans of Vampire Weekend will find a lot to love about "Contra." On the other hand, haters will have a field day tearing it down. As for me, the jury's still out on which side I ultimately land.
Adobe Flash Required for flash player."Horchata"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player."California English"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player."Diplomat's Son"