Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review: Vampire Weekend - Contra

Vampire Weekend’s second album, Contra, comes as one of 2010’s most anticipated releases and only misses a few notes on the harpsichord.  The band hardly departs from their noted Reggae and Afro-Beat 'roots' (um, ya know... from growing up on the streets of suburban New England or from enduring the rough and tumble bedlam of Ivy League dorm-life) as Contra successfully continues the quartet’s unique style of academic-rock fused with world rhythms in a way that is more mature, layered and complex than their original, genre-defining release.  Yet, the band remains true to their initial mission statement: to create music you hadn’t already heard a thousand times- or even once- before.

(Vampire Weekend's new album Contra review after the jump.  Click below to READ MORE.)

Vampire Weekend seemed ready for the national radar even before they released their 2008 self-titled debut.  They became the first ever band to appear on the cover of SPIN (as the year’s best new band of 2008) before even having any official album released.  While most bands grind through a series of releases and tours before slowly gaining the approval of the public, Vampire Weekend didn’t take long to find a signature, style to get themselves noticed.  

Also, Vampires are apparently kinda hot right now.  (And if you're flipping out right now that the picture at right is of a Werewolf and not a Vampire... really, the joke is kind of on you.)

I discovered Vampire Weekend in 2007 while working at a bank in Chicago.  A tall, lanky young man came into my financial center with a small, but strange check to deposit towards a business account.  It stuck out to me.  I mean, what kind of a business was this Vampire Weekend?  The lanky fellow turned out to be drummer Chris Tomson.  Two weeks later, I overheard people at a party asking, ‘have you heard of Vampire Weekend?’

With a name like that, you can’t help but be curious.  After depositing the check, I’d immediately googled ‘Vampire Weekend‘.  I was half-expecting some Halloween party promotion or independent horror film (the later wouldn’t be so far from the truth, as the band derives its name from an amateur film lead-singer Ezra Koenig made in his younger days).

Over the next few months, a band recently resigned to gigs at Columbia University parties, was now touring Europe with The Shins, signed to the same label as The White Stripes, had their single ‘A-Punk’ bouncing around the charts and their self-titled release making an enormous splash in the indie pool.   Now, with a full-steam of forward momentum, Vampire Weekend storms into 2010 ready to drop their sophomore album, Contra, and the expectations haven’t let up.  

If anything they’ve doubled.

It’s no wonder these guys graduated from Columbia.  While their style seems breezy and simple, you don’t have to look beyond their first album to understand the scholarly calculations that compound into a distinct and recognizable brand.  A little band you may have heard of, called The Beach Boys once evoked imagery this way to be associated with their sound.  It’s this Vampire Weekend brand that’s helped the band corner their demographic, making a sound accessible to the polo-shirt-wearing, coastal, liberal-arts educated, blue-stater.  Vampire Weekend doesn’t profess to be a rock band.  In fact, you’re more likely to see them steeping tea or writing with felt-tip pens then you are to see them smashing guitars or banging groupies.  This isn’t a sound born from angst or oppression, it’s the cumulative effect of semesters abroad, trust funds and summers in Martha’s Vineyard.  

On Contra, Vampire Weekend does its best to reinforce their brand with titles like ‘Diplomat’s Son’, ‘California English’ and ‘Horchata’.  What rock band do you know who’s willing (or has the vocabulary extensive enough) to rhyme Horchata with Balaclava?  No doubt, these are the same sweater-wearing savants we last heard heralding Ottomans and lamenting the Oxford Comma. 

Yet, Vampire Weekend’s second run-through on the fusion-style is sure to beg scorn from their critics.  Is the band neglecting an inherent cultural responsibility by being a first-world band that implements third-world styles?  In a recent interview with Pitchfork, band frontman, Ezra Koenig greets his critics by noting, ‘It’s very easy to say that worrying about finding a path or a job that makes you happy is a first world problem, but it doesn’t make you an asshole for doing it.’  It’s hard to imagine that these four scholarly chaps have made it this far without employing a hint of irony or a grain of self-awareness into their songs.  At the end of the day, they’re making fresh, jovial music that is both innovative and accessible... even if you’re not the offspring of a highly-regarded dignitary. 

In 2009, in absence of an official Vampire Weekend release, Keyboardist/Guitarist Rostam Batmanglij collaborated with Ra Ra Riot member, Wes Miles on a side-project called Discovery- a strangely amazing combination of the two band’s sounds with some modern hip-hop, R&B and electronic concepts mixed in.

Ezra Koenig also kept busy in 2009, contributing vocals to the track, ‘Carby’ on Discovery’s album as well as an amazing vocal contribution to the smile-inducing, Afro-beat ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ by The Very Best.

On the 2010 release, ‘Cousins’ stands out like dog-eared page from the rest of the album.  The song is like an over-hyper child frantically played in fast-forward.  Even the music video is a perfect match to the music, capturing the intended feel of the song by being filmed on a long dolly, where we repeatedly race down the same stretch of alley.  There’s no stopping to catch your breath when the guitars burst into surf rock riffs that almost sound ripped straight from Dick Dale.

Joining ‘Cousins’ in the foursome’s pre-release, viral-marketing maelstrom was the song ‘Horchata’ which bats lead-off in the album’s track-listing.  The song rhymes through a cold December (this is where that balaclava makes useful) in which Ezra Koenig’s lyrics yearn for the warmth of summer- a season in which all of Vampire Weekend’s songs finds themselves more relevant.  In “California English,” Koenig motors through the globe-trotting lyrics like an auctioneer, leaving behind the comforts of Manhattan, Cambridge and Cape Cod for other such comforts of the overly-advantaged.

'White Sky' and 'Holiday' keep you bouncing in your khaki's and skinny ties until the album really slows down for the orchestral 'Taxi Cab (the 'M79' of the album, if only it were slowed to smell the sweet scent of the Mexican rice milk.) 'Taxi Cab' isn't as dressed-to-impressed as the rest of the bunch. In this moment, the album ceases to be a Mad Lib for preppy vernacular and speaks only of a specific place and time- a fleeting instance of emotion.

But the entire album isn't all a beach-day in sandals. 'Giving up the Gun' is a simple, uninspired concept that feels over-produced. From there, the album stumbles into the lifeless reggae beat of the boring, 'Diplomat's Son'. While the album closes with the nice, dreamy lullaby 'I Think UR A Contra,' it's too late for it's intentions- the preceding tracks have already lulled you to sleep.


  1. I really liked the review but would have to disagree with you on 'Diplomat's Son', that has to be one of my favorite tracks on the record.

  2. Very good review - definitely makes it sound intriguing!

    Take us out for baclava sometime and we'll discuss it? :P

    Your friends,

  3. Sure...I'll be sure to take you out for a ski mask sometime. haha.

  4. People! BAKLAVA is a greek pastry dessert made with honey, walnut, phyllo dough, etc. BALACLAVA is a ski-mask.