albums, music

Think Ur A Contra? Vampire Weekend Mature

'Contra' by Vampire Weekend

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.


9 thoughts on “Think Ur A Contra? Vampire Weekend Mature

  1. byfuselage says:

    Hey Dan. Not sure I feel ya on this record. I love the first one wholeheartedly, and while I can see how it might annoy some, that didn’t stop it becoming one of my favourite indie-pop records of recent times. Contra, on the other hand, DOES feel ‘thin’ to me. Mainly in terms of energy, which I think is sorely lacking. True, there’s still lots to love (I can’t resist the pulse of Giving Up the Gun for instance) but I can’t remember the last time I heard something so short that seemed to drag so much.

    And why so little guitar?? I loved the guitar sound on the first record *pouts*

  2. danhartland says:

    Andy: how to reconcile polar opposites? I think the thinness you perceive is precisely that lack of guitars – the absence of which, if that’s what you liked about VW, is clearly going to turn you against Contra. But I found the change refreshing – to finesse my position a bit, perhaps it might be fair to say that it’s not that Contra is objectively so very deep (although I do think it is more considered that the debut – perhaps another source of your dissatisfaction with it?), but that it gains in richness by juxtaposition with the previous record. I like that the band chose to do something different. Which goes nowhere near reconciling polar opposites, but hey. 😛

    Iain – that did it occur to me, but I decided to mix metaphors with abandon regardless. I am daring like that.

    Adam – YA RLY.

  3. byfuselage says:

    Hey Dan. I listened to it on headfones for the first time today, and it made me feel a little warmer toward it. I too actually welcome them trying something different. I think the electro-tinged, almost New Order-ish thing they do on tracks like Run and Giving Up The Gun suits them almost as well as the preppy, baroque pop stuff. I just miss the ‘snap’ of the debut. It seemed much more alive, whereas Contra sometimes feels overworked. I’m not sure if that’s quite the same thing as being ‘considered’ – I fear you’re saying I like things rough-edged, which isn’t always true, honest!! Basically, I just wish there was something as thrilling as A-Punk on it. Cousins is the closest…um, cousin (sorry!) to it but is trying to do something different altogether. I dunno, I’m sure I’m not making much sense 😉

  4. danhartland says:

    Andy: I think we’re getting there. 🙂 I wasn’t at all saying you only like rough stuff – heaven forfend! I think when you say the album is ‘overworked’, we’re heading towards common ground. I agree that VW have clearly actually sat down and thought about Contra – and it’s probably fair to find that to have been overdone. I quite like it, though – whilst, yeah, it might lack snap (although ‘California English’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Horchata’ and more all seem pretty snappy to me), I think it makes up for it elsewhere.

    Let’s take this as a sort of agreement? ;P

  5. That opening couplet and the cover are a pretty brazen nose-thumbing to their critics. And “The Strokes would be had they been formed by Paul Simon”? With the first album, this was just shorthand; with this album, there are actual note for note nods to both (Boy In The Bubble and Reptillian, if I’m not mistaken).

    So they set you up and then they knock you down because yes, Contra is a real step forward. The trio of Run-Cousins-Giving Up The Gun, in particular, adds a whole new level.

  6. danhartland says:

    Martin – yes, exactly. I think there’s a whole new level of thought and intent to Contra which is coupled with the musical progression. Good stuff.

  7. Pingback: Terrible Love: The National’s ‘High Violet’ « @Number 71

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