Vampire Weekend are a rather unremarkable band. Ezra Koenig and company are little more than a few slightly preppy guys who got together at Columbia and started writing charming, inoffensive pop songs. Their most remarkable feature, their influence by African music, has in fact been vastly overstated and, given the recent success of internationalist groups like Yeasayer and The Very Best, it’s much less novel than it was back in 2007.
That Vampire Weekend have grown into one of the most popular independent bands of the last few years is therefore something of a surprise. That they have attracted a considerable backlash from hipster circles is possibly even more surprising. There’s very little to dislike in their songs: the lyrics are tinged with intellectualism, but their vagueness and anti-elitism renders them pretty harmless. The music is a delicate blend of indie pop, steady rhythms, and chamber music: again a combination not designed to offend. Vampire Weekend know what they do and they do it well, as proven on their second album, “Contra.”
“Contra,” which recently topped the Billboard charts, is exactly what one could expect from Vampire Weekend—solid, enjoyable music, gently pushing at its own boundaries, yet just a little unremarkable. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could reasonably love or hate it: it’s good, and that’s about it.
“Contra” is in many ways very similar to the band’s self-titled debut. The opener, “Horchata,” quickly proves that the band is quite content to continue in the same style that first brought them success. The lyrics appropriately hint at the need to accept one’s limitations, Koenig singing, “Oh you had it but oh no you lost it / Looking back you shouldn’t have fought it.” The song steadily builds momentum, incorporating woodwind and strings that subtly bring to mind their debut’s “M79.” “Horchata” doesn’t take the listener anywhere especially exciting, but it’s a pleasant trip that successfully introduces the rest of the album.
“White Sky” continues in a very similar vein, its wordless chorus demonstrating the range of Koenig’s voice even when he resorts to yelping over singing. In almost any other hands this would be grating, but Koenig’s voice is so charmingly mercurial that he can pull it off. This opening duo, as well as later tracks like “Run” and “Diplomat’s Son” easily could have been lifted off their debut album; such is the continuity in style and substance.
“Contra” is not, however, a carbon copy of its predecessor. “Taxi Cab” is the group’s first real ballad, a beautiful baroque affair featuring endearingly uncertain romantic lyrics: “You stood so close to me / Like the future was supposed to be.” “Giving Up The Gun” is the biggest step forward for the band’s songwriting skills and possibly the best song on the LP. It is also one of the darkest and most direct songs the group has yet penned. The atmosphere of anxiety and regret are new, yet the backing vocals and shimmering synth line ensure that the song retains the warmth that characterizes most of the group’s oeuvre.
The most radical change on the album is its lead single, the effervescent “Cousins.” Racing along like “A-Punk” on speed, it’s an unusually stimulating highlight. The way Koenig spits out convoluted lyrics like “Dad was a risk taker / His was a shoemaker / You greatest hits 2006 little list-maker” is admirable given how little time each verse allots him.
Sadly, the album contains a few regrettable missteps. “Holiday” features an appalling non sequitur of a bridge, out of nowhere introducing the story of a girl protesting against the Iraq War by becoming a vegetarian into a song that seemed to be about vacations. There is no real point to the political sidestep, and it sits very awkwardly with the song and the album as a whole. On “California English” the group for some reason chooses to auto-tune Koenig’s voice, with terrible results. Closer “I Think Ur A Contra” is easily the least interesting song on the album. The mournful strings that enter halfway through strike completely the wrong tone, and, like “Holiday,” the song rather awkwardly references political events—the Nicaraguan resistance that gives the album its title—to no definable purpose.
These imperfections only serve to reinforce what is clear even in the album’s better moments: Vampire Weekend are not a “great” band. “Contra” is overall a decent album, and finds just the right balance of advancing and holding ground to prevent a sophomore slump. This pragmatism and the group’s talents have seen them achieve considerable success. Just don’t expect them to ascend to anything more remarkable.
—Staff writer Chris R. Kingston can be reached at email@example.com.
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