Vampire Weekend | Contra (XL)

vampireweekend_contra-sm.jpgSorry, haters, but if the biggest indie band in the class of ’08 is going to fail, it’s not on Contra.

 

 

Plenty of people out there are waiting for Vampire Weekend to fall flat on their face. Sorry, haters, but if the biggest indie band in the class of ’08 is going to fail, it’s not on Contra.

The album does what all good sophomore albums should: expand the band’s sonic palette without jettisoning the qualities that made the band strike a chord with its fans in the first place. In Vampire Weekend’s case, that means more jangling guitars, more African-inspired beats, and more of Ezra Koenig’s smooth, clear vocals. But they’ve also added more weapons in their arsenal: "Horchata" opens the album with a snaking melody built from marimba, harmonium, and thumb piano for a sound that’s part calypso, part Bollywood.

Multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij has stated that, "One of the goal’s for this record was to use vocals as a texture, as an instrument." The voice-as-instrument vibe first rears its head on "Horchata" and its choir of reverb-drenched whoa-ohs, but reaches full fruition on "White Sky," whose wordless chorus is sung in a sort of falsetto yodel, if that makes any sense. Despite the chorus weirdness, the verses would easily be at home on the band’s first record (natural, considering it was written early enough to have been played at that album’s release party) with its burbling synths, skittering drum beat, and strutting bass buoying Koenig’s crystal clear voice in furtherance of the whole "indie rock update of Paul Simon’s Graceland" vibe that permeated the debut. "Diplomat’s Son" takes the voice-as-instrument philosophy to its logical extreme, backing Koenig with a chorus of chirped backing vocals straight out of "Don’t Worry, Be Happy" and a vocal sample from M.I.A.’s "Hussel" over a bed of hand percussion and Sufjan Stevens-esque strings.

As a sonic experiment, "Diplomat’s Son" works fine, but as a song it’s ultimately lacking, as its repetitive structure makes the tune drag as it lurches past the 6-minute mark. Faring even worse is "California English," where Koenig risks planting his love-it-or-hate-it voice firmly into hate-it territory by trying his hand at rapid fire rap and then drenching it in pop music’s crutch du jour, AutoTune, turning a not particularly good song into something that’s downright grating. It’s the album’s only real clunker, but it thankfully speeds by in just two and a half minutes.

From there, things improve immensely with "Taxi Cab," where Koenig’s hushed vocals are paired with pulsing synths and classically-flavored piano and harpsichord; it’s a mixture that shouldn’t work, but it does. Bassist Chris Baio, the most valuable player on damn near every song on the debut, doesn’t really get a chance to shine until "Cousins," a lightning speed rocker with a pot-boiling bass lick and a skittering punk tempo that plays like a lost afrobeat outtake from Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! Baio plays the bottom end a little more traditionally on "Giving Up the Gun," but Chris Tomson’s stomping stop-start drums and the chorus of bells in the background give the song a flavor all its own.

Contra isn’t the complete failure the band’s detractors were waiting for, but it’s not the instant classic that Vampire Weekend was, either. The more I listen to the album the more I like it, but the more it becomes apparent that none of the new songs drill their way into your head as deeply as "Campus" or "A-Punk" did, and the songs lack the witty, pop-savvy lyrics of "Oxford Comma." What Contra does succeed in doing, however, is taking the band into new, adventurous territory, and prove that the four NYC Preppies That Could will, at the very least, continue making very interesting music. A- | Jason Green

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