Critical Voices: Vampire Weekend, Contra

January 21, 2010

Vampire Weekend came out of nowhere in 2008, writing songs about the Oxford comma, ripping stylistic quirks from Paul Simon, and generating not only an astounding amount of hype, but also haters who found them too uninspiring, too unoriginal, or just too preppy.

Contra, their newest release, should quiet those haters. It’s the sound of a young band coming into its own, fusing the spiky Afro-influenced pop of the debut with ideas very much borne out of modern radio-ready pop.

Contra is a less organic affair than its predecessor, which relied primarily on traditional rock instrumentation. On opener “Horchata,” the band opts for the flair of marimbas and a programmed electro beat. Cheerful synth lines and distorted electronic snares dominate “White Sky” before Koenig busts out a catchy wordless chorus.

On a few songs—“Cousins,” for example, or the excellent “Holiday”—Vampire Weekend tightens things up with precise guitar work and jaunty rhythms. Like their debut’s best track, “A-Punk,” these songs remind us that Vampire Weekend has, at a base level, a gift for fast-paced, simple pop.

Yet the band is not afraid to step out from Vampire Weekend’s shadow. On “California English,” Koenig sings with Auto-Tune, on “Diplomat’s Son,” easily the band’s longest song at six minutes, guitarist/producer Rostam Batmanglij samples M.I.A. and indulges in a long narrative about youthful, upper-class rebellion. While excellent songs, anyone clamoring for the simplicity of the band’s debut will prefer tracks like “Run”—which features a Mexican-influenced horn section, countering assertions that Vampire Weekend mines only Afro-pop—and “Giving Up the Gun,” perhaps the band’s most conventional modern rock song.

It’s clear from even a cursory listen of Contra that the band’s members do not want to be pigeonholed. They can write two-minute punk songs or six-minute electro-epics. They can rely on synths or guitars, and they can sound timelessly international or distinctly emblematic of a particular moment in time in New York City. As a result, there’s something for everyone on Contra, and it’s worth a listen, even for those that mocked their debut.

Voice’s Choices: “Cousins,” “Holiday,” “Run”

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