Review: Does Vampire Weekend’s ‘Contra’ have bite?

01.11.10 8 years ago


When Vampire Weekend burst on the scene with its self-titled album in 2008, the group’s ascent to indie pop savior was meteoric. It was somewhat justified: the New York indie band crafts tight, quirky pop songs just one shade short of being too precious.

Plus then, as now, the drowning music industry grabbed onto anything that slightly resembled a lifeline.
The album was a strong, if not terrific, seller, moving close to 500,000 units and leaving the blogosphere salivating for what the clever quartet would come up with next. The answer is here with “Contra,” a tight, nine-song, 36-minute pop record that draws upon the African rhythms that influenced “Vampire Weekend,” and expands into other world beats.

There’s a reason “Contra” is streaming on NPR. Vampire Weekend comes as close to being the perfect NPR band as can be. They’re hip so NPR’s 40-year-old typical supporter feel edgy and au currant listening to them, their lyrics are elliptical and somewhat vague but still accessible and the music is pop, but with various intriguing flavors and spices that ensure that Top 40 radio will always stay just out of reach.

“Contra” opens with “Horchata.” I don’t know what that is, but it sounds yummy, especially when served up surrounded by steel drums and layered vocals as it is here. Lead singer Ezra Koenig’s vocals remain open and delightfully inviting. The song is the perfect anecdote to winter’s chill. But the pop ride is just beginning or as Koenig sings, “Here comes a feeling you thought you’d forgotten,” as the album brings back the feelings evoked by carefree summer days. 

Virtually every song here has some flourish: strings, creative time signatures or just Koenig’s vocal turns and twists.

Need a pick-me up? Blast “Holiday,” with its Caribbean rhythms, and just try not to smile and dance around your office? Much of the album has the same effect. “Run” is a south-of-the-border-spiced pop song that falls just the right side of being twee, even with its ’80s Brit pop-synth bounce. First single “Cousins” is a full-bore blast complete with surf-guitar licks, ringing bells and nonsensical lyrics.  “Giving up the Gun” would sound right at home at on a Peter, Bjorn and John album. “Diplomat’s Son” gets its reggae flavor from an M.I.A. sample.

A few of the songs, such as “California English,” recall Paul Simon-era “Graceland,” while remaining utterly contemporary. Nice touch. Only two albums in, it’s hard to truly define a band, but this seems to be Vampire Weekend’s strong suit: instead of sounding derivative, the band takes its influences and twists them into something new and uniquely their own.

Album closer, “I Think Ur A Closer,” is a dreamy, gauzy song (which has a few musical lines that sound like the intro to “Baba O’Riley”–or maybe that’s just because I’ve listened to the Who a lot lately). The lyrics are, of course, clever as they declare if you want a friends with pools, you’re not a contra. Guess I’m in the clear.
For fans who grabbed onto Vampire weekend two years ago and haven’t let go, “Contra” will prove worth your devotion. For those first hearing of them now, climb on board. It’s a great ride.

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