Album Review: Vampire Weekend – Contra (XL Recordings)

Okay, well we’re a little late with this one. Chances are you’ve already heard and formed an opinion about Vampire Weekend’s second album, Contra. Fortunately for us lollygaggers, that has given us the opportunity to try and put this album into context.

Some of the facts:

- Contra debuted as the number one album in the country, selling 124,000 copies in its first week. It was only the 12th independently-released album to do so. According to Billboard, their previous best sales week was when their debut self-titled album netted 28,000 sales in the opening week.

- Almost every U.S. show in support of this album has sold out. Locally, the band has progressed from the Rock and Roll Hotel (capacity 400 people) in early 2008, to two nights  at the 9:30 Club (1,200) later that year, to DAR Constitution Hall (3,720) this coming April. All  sell outs.

- In their second video in support of this album, for single “Giving Up the Gun,” we get a futuristic tennis match featuring Joe Jonas and Jake Gyllenhaal as players, Lil Jon as a French-speaking instructor and RZA as a Neo-from-The-Matrix-like referee (no joke). This is almost as random/absurd a group as another video starring Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It (On the Alcohol),” which also features Forest Whitaker, Ron Howard and Foxx himself rolling up to the club in a Rolls Royce to party with Samuel L. Jackson, T-Pain and many more. Seriously.

- On March 6, the group made its second appearance on “Saturday Night Live.”

All of the above accomplishments, including the ability to cobble together such a large swath of the cultural zeitgeist for one music video, demonstrate that Contra has launched Vampire Weekend from the flavor of the month to one of the biggest bands in alternative music. They have managed to do this by writing catchy tunes that can hook in somebody oblivious to the hype while incorporating technical elements that appeal to portions of the indie set.

Of course, big sales and increased coverage don’t equal good music. In fact, these days the opposite is usually true. What makes these achievements so impressive is that the band has been able to reach these milestones without compromising anything artistically. Even more impressive, they have managed to do all of this with a great pop album that takes one step from the Graceland-rip off accusations, and nudges the band’s sonic palette in new directions.

In recent years, the standard play for bands attempting to change their sound has been to throw on layers of electronics or go electronic altogether. Vampire Weekend are no different, as the thumping club bass of “Horchata” and the bleeps and bloops of “White Sky,” the album’s first two tracks, show. But unlike most, they have put them to use in an understated way that doesn’t drown out everything else. It is more of an embellishment than a style shift. The album is full of them.

Though Ezra Koenig and his head-scratching lyrics (more on this in a bit) are simultaneously the face of the band and the reason many people loathe them, this album really belongs to producer and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij who, in addition to playing guitar, splays everything from synths to M.I.A. samples against the tight backing rhythm of drummer Christopher Tomson and bassist Chris Baio.

Songs range from soft keyboard ballads, “Taxi Cab” and “I Think Ur a Contra,” to the straightforward pop rock of “Holiday” to club-reggae hybrid “Diplomat’s Son.” The world music influences, featured so prominently on the band’s first album, are still present but toned down in places and woven together with electro-pop. They’ve taken their sound and added new layers, new bells and whistles, new intricacies. But it’s done in a way that never overloads the senses or loses accessibility. Again, it goes back to moderation.

They’ve taken their version of the pop song and dressed it up in a different way, but  they didn’t overdo it. At their core, all of these tracks are tightly-wound and hook-heavy. That is the key to this band and its success. Despite the added complexities of some of the arrangements, Vampire Weekend are still able to craft great pop that effortlessly switches from genre to genre and can be richly dense or blissfully simplistic.

Lyrically, Koenig’s efforts show a little more focus but are still fairly hit or miss.  At times it feels like he’s torn between attempting to make Stephen Malkmus-esque turns of phrase– ones that aren’t nearly as good as Pavement’s –and actually getting a message across. Frankly, there are times where I don’t have the faintest idea of what the hell he is trying to say.

But he hits the mark on tracks like “Run,” a song about the temptation for lovers to abandon the upper-crust Manhattan world so often linked with the band, in favor of a place “Worlds away from cars/ And all the stars and bars/ Where a little bit of conversation means so much/ And a little bit of change is all your fingers touch.”

In “White Sky,” he chastises the elite for their “sins of pride and envy,” specifically, gobbling up pieces of modern art in excess and depriving the general populace from witnessing their greatness in art museums. Yet, Koenig still gazes amidst New York’s many looming condo towers with wonder and aspiration: “Look up at the buildings/ Imagine who might live there/ Imagine your Wolfords in a ball upon the sink there.” For the record, Wolfords are a brand of tights that will run you over $40. Not exactly slumming it.

Make no mistake, this attempted divorce from wealth and privilege feels mostly like a flight of fancy. We still get songs about drinking fancy drinks and partying with the sons of diplomats. It’s this kind of imagery that seems to draw the ire of a lot of people, including the Village Voice, who saw what they thought to be the band towing the line for the blue bloods and pleaded, “Please Ignore This Band.” But if we are to assume that all “the worst” is true, is it really fair to write off a band for being true to themselves? Is their music any less valid because it comes from a perspective different from our own? In this reviewer’s mind, the answer to both questions is no. While tales of middle and lower class strife may be more compelling, and more in line with the experiences most of us go through on a regular basis, that doesn’t give them any sort of higher level of authenticity.

And then there are some who see dress shirts instead of thrift store flannel and write it off as preppy douchery.  Koenig is conscious of all this, telling MTV that the image gracing the album’s cover is “…almost like a Rorschach test, because some people get very mad when they see a white blond girl in a Polo shirt. It makes you realize how much you can imagine about somebody when you know nothing about them, based on only a few signifiers.” A thinly-veiled stab at his critics, saying, don’t judge us solely on the fact that we wear button-down shirts and went to an Ivy League school.

Nor should you. Their appeal is not about nice clothes and higher education. It’s not about ripping off Paul Simon, either. It’s about the ability to create popular music that doesn’t compromise, and yes, pop music that draws on outside influences, including world music, that some listeners wouldn’t bother to find otherwise. Like Simon, they have managed to do this and somehow found their way, against all odds, into the greater collective consciousness– which seems a lot harder to do now than it did over 20 years ago.

Label: XL Recordings

Release date: Jan 8 2010

Track list:

  1. Horchata
  2. White Sky
  3. Holiday
  4. California English
  5. Taxi Cab
  6. Run
  7. Cousins
  8. Giving Up The Gun
  9. Diplomat’s Son
  10. I Think Ur A Contra

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