Music Reviews

Vampire Weekend Contra

(XL Recordings) Rating - 8/10

Vampire Weekend get a lot of flak for allegedly being ‘elitist’. It’s not hard to see why: besides being young, preppy (read: snobby), and dressing in sweater-vests and boat shoes, they also happen to write songs like Oxford Comma. While on the one hand they’re fond of discussing points of grammar on which the verdict from style manual editors is still out, and penning lines like “Spilled kefir on your keffiyah”, this is also the band that sang, “Why would you lie ‘bout how much coal you have? Why would you lie ‘bout something dumb like that?” Contra’s opening track, Horchata, drew the ire of internet pundits everywhere for rhyming horchata with Aranciata, then with Masada, but come on—I can buy horchata (or Aranciata, for that matter) vacuum-packed at a supermarket 10 minutes’ drive away. The fact is, if it weren’t for Ezra Koenig’s voice (and of course his mildly ridiculous lyrics), few would suspect that Contra and 2008’s self-titled debut were recorded by the same band.  

It’s no exaggeration to say that letting keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij return to produce album no. 2 was the single worst mistake Vampire Weekend made in Contra’s creation. Batmanglij drenches the album with the R&B stylings that proved so successful in his R&B side project, Discovery—a move completely at odds with Vampire Weekend’s sound. His reverse-Midas touch is evident on cuts like California English, where he piles thick layers of Auto-Tune on top of vocalist Ezra Koenig’s vocal line. Giving Up the Gun has justifiably been singled out as the album’s lone substandard cut, but its misstep is not so much the arena-ready synths, the alt-rock drums, or even the masturbatory references (after all, they’re not too far removed from Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’s shitty come-ons). Rather, the song’s fatal flaw is in the regrettable doubling, then tripling of Koenig’s vocal line—first with tawdry vocal effects, then with a singularly gaudy glockenspiel. 

Batmanglij’s studio blundering is doubly unfortunate as it transpires just as Koenig is starting to come into his own as a vocalist. In the two years since Vampire Weekend’s debut, he’s grown more sophisticated and confident. Nowhere is this more apparent than on album highlight White Sky, whose exultant mood is due in large part to Koenig’s tweaked enunciations and subtle timbral inflections. On Cousins, he actually shouts—inconceivable just two years ago.

While Vampire Weekend really only featured two or three ‘African’ beats, labelling it as ‘Afro-pop’ didn’t really feel off the mark—perhaps because subdued drumming, even if firmly rooted in Western musical styles, allowed the band to direct the listener’s attention to the music’s more exotic elements. For this reason, it’s not particularly surprising that Contra’s percussion is solidly rock-oriented; what is surprising is how conspicuous the drumming is. The relentless drive of cuts like Holiday and Cousins is powered almost exclusively by Chris Tomson’s cutting snare, while California English, with its mechanical clicks, is completely out of step with the organic percussion of the band’s debut. While few will miss Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’s faux-Lion King cooing, far more will notice that its intricate hand drum rhythms don’t reappear on Contra until two minutes from the end of the album closer, I Think Ur a Contra. Between the drums and the increased presence of the rhythm guitar, cuts like these find the band exploring a far more percussive sound.

But while half the album is rigidly rhythmic, Horchata is just the opposite, eschewing guitar in favour of vocal harmonizers and marimbas (and rebolos, and zabumbas, and shekeres, and...) to create an ambience nothing short of sublime. Further contrast is yet to come in Taxi Cab and I Think Ur a Contra, which explore rock-ballad territory that nothing on Vampire Weekend came close to. Indeed, the weak flow of the album can probably be attributed to its stylistic incongruity. 

Still, you can’t begrudge them for experimentation, especially when they’re revising the fundamental elements of their sound. Case in point: the marked absence of strings. You’d be hard-pressed to identify a song on their debut without a string section. Now, when the strings even make an appearance, as on California English, they’re no longer used to support and cushion a melody—on Contra, they’re much more dissonant, played almost like guitars. It’s clear Vampire Weekend visualized Contra as a more dissonant, abrasive album. To wit: Run, whose horns feature intervals just subtly discordant enough to colour and unsettle the hook—one that would almost certainly have been carried by a lush string quartet two years ago. Looking back, Bryn is the only song on Vampire Weekend that even approaches the harsh guitar tone of cuts like Cousins.  

So, sure, Contra has its faults—the ill-advised production, the jarring styles, the traces of arena-rock. But you have to admire it nonetheless, and not only for the stellar songwriting: there’s not a single song on Contra that could be mistaken for Vampire Weekend. Vampire Weekend’s willingness to write an album of exciting new material, rearranging the very core of the sound they’ve come to be known for, will be maddening on first listen for those who loved their debut—but those who stick it out will discover that there’s a more mature, innovative band in its place.