XL Recordings, 2010
REVIEW BY: Giselle Nguyen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/03/2010
Vampire Weekend exploded into the music world’s general consciousness at the beginning of 2008 with an eponymous debut album that was bouncy, harmless indie rock with grammatical bones to pick (for the record, I don’t care at all about the Oxford comma either). The one thing that really stood out about that album and the band’s general ethos – their dabbling forays into experimenting with non-Western musical tradition – is further explored on their second album Contra. Word is that the name of this album came from taking the antithesis of The Clash’s seminal triple album Sandinista!, both named for opposing Nicaraguan rebel groups. And really, this growing sense of world awareness is nothing but a good thing.
There is a stronger focus here on bongos, layered group vocals. Much like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” on the first album, the material here shows that the band seems to harbor a real fascination with the foreign in terms of both lyrical content and musical influence, as frontman Ezra Koenig has constantly explained in interviews. There’s an M.I.A sample in “Diplomat’s Son” and an obvious nod to Hispanic culture with opener “Horchata,” which starts off with just vocals and builds up to include xylophones and hints of electro, strings, and woodwind. There’s also some more classical sounds, like the reverb-drenched string and keys interlude puncturing the otherwise pedestrian “Taxi Cab.” Koenig’s voice is developing more of an accented twang as he progresses as a vocalist, well illustrated in first frenzied single “Cousins” as he races through a fast-paced piece with a frenetic guitar and bass line punching through beyond his voice.
And then there are the tracks that just pop out simple goods: “Holiday” is a two-minute burst of infectious guitars and a straightforward melody that does nothing if it doesn’t make you want to dance, and “I Think UR A Contra” focuses on Koenig’s vocal ability as he dreamily floats the album to a close over similarly spacey guitars and, to shut off, a final maraca hurrah.
The comparison that was constantly made at the start of this band’s career to Paul Simon’s 1986 African-drizzled record Graceland seems so much more fitting now. Contra is a tribute in so many ways to the world that inspires us, and yet at the same time, it is distinctly American with its brave blend of contrasting elements. It’s refreshing to hear a young band dabble with so much political and cultural attitude and opinion. The great thing about Contra is that it manages to convey these important matters in a way that is still ultimately listenable, not forceful or pretentious and, most importantly, a lot of fun. And if this is the progression from their debut, it’s a high possibility that album number three will be even more inspired.