Vampire Weekend have their fair share of detractors. To the extent that they are what The Strokes would be had they been formed by Paul Simon, this might be defensible. Privileged east-coast white boys, on their self-titled debut album they played around with hipster indie pop and “World Music” sounds in the sort of way that leads a certain type of person to turn up their nose. If ‘Mansard Roof’ and ‘Oxford Comma’ both defied the sniffiness of the indierati, that first album perhaps was by and large typified by thinness – bar the catchy singles, there was a sheerness to the record’s songs which, if not actually superficial, gave the impression in their precise, clean intelligence of not being, well, very deep. You could still be a fan of Vampire Weekend, but not without – perhaps – admitting that those who weren’t might have a point.
The band’s second effort, Contra, was released last week and may well be signal the end of that balanced status quo. It retains the rhythms, lightness and vocal style of that earlier album. But it is also sonically and lyrically more diverse and ambitious than what went before and – perhaps more importantly – it sees the band fully embrace all the things about them which the people who hate them hate so much. So there’s a song about a diplomat’s son (er, ‘Diplomat’s Son’), an unashamed calypso with a vocoder effect, no less (‘California English’), and, in ‘Taxi Cab’, Ezra Koenig sings, “Sure of myself / Sure of it now.” Here is a record which opens with the immortal line, “In december, drinking Horchata / I’d look psychotic in a balaclava.” Vampire Weekend aren’t making any compromises.
So Contra is a record which will force people to pick sides. But it also seems to me a record which might make a few people swap them. I thought Vampire Weekend was fine as far as it went, but I think Contra goes much further – and is also pretty interesting. So, yes, it has all those Vampire Weekendy things that may or may not drive you up the wall; but it follows through on them – it considers them, lyrically and musically, rather than merely expressing them. Mike Powell at Pitchfork, with whom I pretty much agree about the record, points out the underlying lyrical deliberateness of the album’s at times freely associated lines: “When the taxi door was open wide / I pretended I was horrified / By the uniform and the gloves outside / Of the courtyard gate” (‘Taxicab’). It is far beyond me to respect the sentiment behind this honesty, but I rather like the honesty nonetheless. Likewise, the mixture of styles and influelnces on ‘Cousins’ far surpasses in coherency much of what has gone before in the band’s career.
Contra can still feel like water slipping off of a duck’s back. But there are, for those who care to listen, an awful lot of hooks.