Album Review: Vampire Weekend – Contra
by Marcus K. Dowling
If the formula for album sales were to include multiplying intellectual quotient and sheer amount of intellect used to craft a release, the boys of Vampire Weekend would be the highest selling artists of this generation.
If the formula for album sales were to include multiplying intellectual quotient and sheer amount of intellect used to craft a release, the boys of Vampire Weekend would be the highest selling artists of this generation. However, that’s not the case, so the Harvard graduates with a Ph. D in African polyrhythms merely exist as the quirky champions of independent rock, a title they still are holding steadfast to after their letter of stylized Martha’s Vineyard summer style heartbreak, Contra.
The record, clocking in at just under 37 minutes is an absolute delight. The band’s jack of all trades Rostam Batmanglij is once again behind the boards, and with all things on this record, the skill of his production, as well as the skill apparent in the band is at a much more polished and fully actualized level now, as seemingly the humorous novelty of being able to record their smart boy prep concept rock has gone from hobby to full fledged career. The Ivy Leaguers have cleaned themselves up from being scruffy and winsome at graduation, to being worldly, pressed, shaved and well on their way to climbing the corporate ladder in the Fortune 500 company that is the commercial mainstream.
Vampire Weekend can say anything they want, and that you really hope that in the end, they get the girl, because they already have your ears, and your attention.
The secret of Vampire Weekend’s success lies in a full knowledge of the expansion and contraction of their unique sound. On this record, the band explores a very new wave inspired sound on tracks like “Giving Up the Gun” where Batmanglij apparently reached into his bag of tricks from his side project band Discovery and added a heaping dose of synthesizer to the Vampire Weekend mix, creating something that approaches Talking Heads or Devo out of the Afro pop equation. “California English” shows the ability of the band to now contract, as the rambling gazelle of Ezra Koenig’s lead guitar isn’t followed with noisome drumming by Chris Tomson as on their early winner “A Punk.” Instead, they opt for a full invocation of their African sound, creating a pleasant ditty discussing summer vacation. Certainly the appreciation that the band received globally for their attempts at crafting a true African vibe have steeled the creative direction of the production, instrumentation and vocals of the band.
For fans of the plaintive and peaceful side of Vampire Weekend that brought them fame, there’s plenty of fodder here, too. Lead singles “Horchata” and “Cousins” are quite awesome. “Horchata” is a delightful mid-tempo African folk hymn with effervescence breathed into it from the voice of Ezra Koenig. Ezra Koenig is one of the cornerstone voices of this musical era and delivers here, Batmanglij’s various percussive instruments being played on the track only adding to the airy freedom therein. “Cousins” allows Vampire Weekend to once again revel in their ska punk roots, tracks like these being the most fun as the very straight laced instrumentalists in the band really get to let their hair down here and create a dance pop explosion, Chris Tomson’s drumming here being the punk influence as his playing sounds insistent and makes the song a sweeping wind through an otherwise wistful creation.
But the two most intriguing tracks on this album that may show the new creative motivations of the band are “Diplomat’s Son” and the eponymous album closer “I Think Ur a Contra.” “Diplomat’s Son,” the song about the boy about to steal a girl from a boy,” is a beautiful yet funky ballad blending disparate African and Indian rhythms to create a multicultural oddity that moves the soul. Sad song on the bottom of the mix and M.I.A.’s “Galang” on the top, Ezra Koenig glides effortlessly through the middle, crafting a masterfully depressed heart-string puller. The big bad shotgun of a slow tempo champion here is “Contra,” where in four minutes and 30 seconds of an ambient folk jazz track, Koenig’s painful recognition that he’s going to lose when a girl should “never pick sides, never choose between two” closes the album like so many Lloyd Doblers holding boomboxes in the front yards of so many Diane Courts. This means that Vampire Weekend can say anything they want, and that you really hope that in the end, they get the girl, because they already have your ears, and your attention.