In Brief: As literate, intriguing, and infectious as their debut, with a few new sonic enhancements. It’s the perfect “wish it was summer” album.
Wow, where’d the time go? It’s February of 2010 already, and all I’ve got to show for the new year so far is a string of nostalgia for the decade gone by and a DVD review. Time to catch up with something actually current out there in the music world! And since wintertime is the perfect time of year to wrap oneself in a nice, warm blanket with a hot drink and keep warm to the tune of some slow, brooding, gradually-building epic prog rock or something. Today I’m doing exactly that with a big cup of… ice cold horchata?... um, and the melancholy, soothing sounds of a band called… Vampire Weekend??? Wait, what’s going on here? This isn’t the kind of music you listen to in the winter!
Vampire Weekend became a sensation seemingly overnight after their first January release in 2008 – a peppy, sunny concoction of jangly indie rock fused with West African rhythms, stately string sections, and a teensy-weensy hint of ska (sans the horns) that largely found the band sticking to a short but sweet “Get in, say what you gotta say, and get out” sort of mentality. It was the perfect summer soundtrack, perhaps sometimes impenetrable due to its socio-politically charged Ivy League jargon, but also equally youthful and charming due to the simple pleasure of lovey-dovey lyrics being spouted over addictive tropical drum beats. Their music seemed poised as an antidote – to a chilly time of year and perhaps to the idea that “slower and longer” is better among indie bands trying to outdo each other’s epics. I’m not opposed to the epic approach, but I’m a pop guy too, so my CD collection certainly benefitted from that spicy little appetizer of a disc. And when it came time for the follow-up, Contra, Vampire Weekend apparently decided not to fix what weren’t broke, continuing with the lean & mean approach on one of the most consistently delightful 10-track albums I’ve heard in a good while. It’s just a half an hour and change, and yet it feels like a complete and satisfying experience.
Sticking with their zippy, worldbeat-infused style and keeping Ezra Koenig‘s lyrics generally at a college reading level doesn’t mean that the band didn’t try new things, though. Contra isn’t shockingly different from the band’s self-titled debut, but it’s noticeable for taking a decided step toward electronica, which is seen in the drum programming that bolsters Chris Baio‘s rapid-fire beats here and there and the more synthesized approach of Rostam Batmanglij‘s keyboards. This might round the edges of a few songs, making Contra slightly less spontaneous than its predecessor seemed to be, but it never feels like it’s cheating on the “live performance” aspect of the music – they could be playing to a slick rhythm track that they’ve concocted, but there’s still more than enough spirit coming from the analogue instruments, as well as some surprising bits of minimism in the rare moments where the band pulls back for something resembling a ballad. It’s smart stuff that oughta give existing fans the shot in the arm they craved, while still sounding distinct enough from most of today’s popular music to make folks curious. I may not have a clue about what half of it means, but with those words flying by at occasionally ridiculous speeds, that’s often part of the fun.
I promised myself I’d make the overview short and sweet, because that’s how Vampire Weekend makes their music. So let’s delve into the songs and see if I can be similarly concise there. (Probably not… you know me better than that by now.)
The first verse and chorus heard on the album are Vampire Weekend in a nutshell – sunny, tropical feeling, lyrics about escaping winter’s cold to somewhere warm, rhymes that initially go over your head, and – BLAMMO! – a sweet drum breakdown that feels like it could accompany a dance atop hot coals. I love the contrast between the relaxed verses and intense breakdown, which somehow feels organic despite having an obviously programmed element to it. You could take it as a simple song about ditching winter weather and rekindling an old flame in some exotic locale, but there may or may not be some deeper commentary running underneath it about how the relationship described went from “exotic” to “everyday”.
2. White Sky
The electronic syncopation in this song is just delightful, the old-school beeps and hand-claps colliding with a galloping drum beat and a joyous chorus that is one of the album’s most memorable despite not saying a word. Which is not to say that Ezra Koenig doesn’t have a point to make in this song, which seems to have gotten the idea for its -old-meets-new kaleidoscope of sound from a walk through New York City and an examination of the cold glass and steel of corporate high rises butting up against parks and museums and various pointers to the city’s past. That seems to be the key to this album – finding inspiration in an ugly collision of things that weren’t meant to go together.
What about the folks who live in war-torn countries, the kind of places that provoke protests on college campuses? Do they dream of getting away from it all like we do? I wonder if that’s the question this song is trying to ask, but it bounces on by so quickly that it’s hard to tell. Vampire Weekend is a skilled band when it comes to saying a lot in very little time, though, and they return to the more organic side of their sound for a track that feels similar to the first album’s “A-Punk” with its ska beat and punchy keyboards. There’s a lot of wit to be found in this song, but perhaps the most striking reality check comes when Ezra doubles back on himself with this intriguing line: “She’d never seen the word ‘bombs’ blown up to 96 point Futura.” Who else could be nerdy enough to reference a typeface in a song and yet witty enough to actually make it mean something bigger than that?
4. California English
If you thought “Mansard Roof” flew by you at warp speed, then just wait ’til you get a load of this puppy. Amidst a clattering and unruly rhythm, Ezra spills out words so quickly that they all run into each other, making use of a vocorder (the most hated gadget in rock & roll these days) to further chop up and obscure the individual syllables. Illustrating exactly why this doesn’t work is what makes the song work (and due to the title and the fact that I have a bad habit of talking too fast to make people understand me, I have to wonder: Is this how outsiders think Californians talk?) This one’s fun just because it’s such a tongue twister, but when you’ve got the ingenious pairing of otherwise unrelated phrases like “Contra Costa, Contra Mundum, contradict what I say”, it’s obvious that the band has a love for the way these words sound when squeezed together in such rapid succession, and that there’s probably some loaded subtext underneath it. Maybe they’re making fun of California stereotypes, maybe they secretly admire the hippie-meets-yuppie culture… I don’t know. But it’s a fun, and dare I say, accurate tribute to the place I call home from the perspective of amused outsiders looking in.
5. Taxi Cab
One element of VW’s music that I haven’t talked about too much in this review is the string sections, which I found to be an amusing counterpoint on their first album, because here comes this prim and proper European influence to balance out the rhythm-heavy African influence and the free-for-all attitude of indie rock. There have been strings popping in and out on this album as well, just not as prominently (at least in my mind) up until this song, which is almost entirely a creation of the studio, scaling the sound back to the sparse, simple thump of the drum programming and the bass, the gentle, hovering buzz of the strings, and a few cute little piano interludes that server to play up the band’s classical side. It’s the rare “ballad” in the VW canon, and while it can occasionally lower the volume to almost the level of a whisper, it’s kind of cool to hear what this band can create in their more restrained mode (hey, it beats the usual “We’re a hard rock band strumming chords on an acoustic guitar, aren’t we deep?” approach). Ezra’s lyrics are calm and almost detached, as if describing something sad or painful that he witnessed and yet was unable to prevent, or perhaps just unwilling to get involved.
OK, so we’ve all heard the songs that gripe about lost youth and a life spent endlessly working. So why is it that, despite being such a cliche, the opening lines still strike me as if this were a new concept to write a song about? “Every dollar counts, and every morning hurts/We mostly work to live, until we live to work.” It hurts ’cause it’s true. And I can’t blame Vampire Weekend for indulging in a little escapism, simply asking what would happen if a couple just decided to ditch it all and start over somewhere together. It’s hopelessly naive, of course, but when Chris Baio’s relentless drums get going (I swear, those cadences remind me of U2‘s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” at certain points) and a couple horns join the celebration, it’s hard to not want to root for the ignorant young lovebirds. I’ve picked this one out as my early favorite on the album, though there is a lot of competition in that department.
Now we’ve got another short but sweet, blast of energy, this one being about as brief as “Holiday” but sped up to the point of absurdity, feeling quite like a car chase on a gravel road littered with potholes. Ezra’s got these vocal tics going in at the beginning of the song that make him sound like a cartoon character getting blunt objects thrown at him, and his voice is at its most raspy and pointed throughout the song. Not much studio tinkering here – just that undistorted guitar sound making its own clean yet messy version of punk rock due to all of its sharp stabs and nervous tremolos and so forth. As is true of many Vampire Weekend songs, there’s some sort of a culture clash between the rich folks and the rest of us going on here, but I haven’t quite parsed enough of the song to make total sense of it just yet.
8. Giving Up the Gun
The beginning of this song makes me feel like I just got a bunch of 1-Ups in a Nintendo game or something. (Which Nintendo game, you ask? Oh, come on. I’m sure you can finish that joke on your own.) There are lots of bleeps and bloops and fuzzy bass running throughout the length of this song, which might seem mid-tempo coming off of something as ridiculous as “Cousins”, but which still gives me the sense of barreling down a long hall, trying to avoid gunfire. I like the start/stop dynamic during the verses, but I think this might not have been as much of a hook on its own, so it was wise to lead off the song with its chorus, which makes it sink in more immediately in the midst of so many other punchy tracks all grabbing for your attention. Lots of talk about weaponry and war in this song, and a person who perhaps feels obsolete because, well, the gun is mightier than the sword. They bring back that trembling guitar and also throw in some female backing vocals for the bridge – apparently they felt like taking the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach with this one. It works.
9. Diplomat’s Son
Speaking of throwing in a bunch of stuff to see if it works, this track is a true anomaly – a six-minute “call it something other than an epic” that samples Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. before taking a few sudden left turns into a synthesized reggae slow jam, for which Rostam briefly pulls double duty as lead singer and keyboard player. It’s definitely a mish-mash of ideas, a strange concoction that takes some getting used to due to its long-windedness. Knowing your music history will help here, since the song references both Paul Simon and The Clash, both artists who influenced the band in ways I can’t quite trace due to my personal unfamiliarity with either of them. I have my days when I feel like this one interrupts the album’s flow, and then other days when I really like it. (Is it wrong that the chorus melody makes me think of Lily Allen‘s “Smile”?) The constant is that I always find its lyrics intriguing – Ezra’s crooning seems to once again deal with the privileged and their ability to use the resources at their disposal to hide from things like war and suffering – perhaps dodging a draft, in this case, but it’s hard to be sure. It whatever incident they’re referencing happened in 1981, I don’t think these guys were even born yet! (Not that it matters. I just thought it’d be fun to point that out.)
10. I Think Ur a Contra
The slow, swirly mist of the title track is definitely an odd way for this band to close out a record, given what I’m used to from them thus far. It certainly does create a lull in the final minutes of the album because of the repetitive stuttering at the end of “Diplomat’s Son” that leads into it, but at the same time, it’s interesting to hear how little disorganized bits of guitar playing, Caribbean-styled keyboards and piano, ambient synths, and gentle but contradictory polyrhythms all play off of one another. It’s all there to depict the delicate balancing act of pretending you’re someone you’re not, of trying to appear-counter culture but really being just as harmless and straightforward as the “deer caught in headlights” look of the girl on the album cover. I think Ezra’s secretly in love with that girl. He seems amused by her disguise but seems to genuinely like the gentler side that she doesn’t want to show. “You wanted good schools and friends with pools”, he sighs. “You’re not a contra.” Maybe he’s slightly disappointed that they won’t go out and break some laws and cause laws to be rewritten together, but maybe that’s not what he wants in the end after all.
And that’s the album. Long on interesting thoughts even though it’s short on runtime. For once, brevity is not a detriment, and in a year that has thus far been devoid of interesting new music (seriously, nothing ever seems to come out in January), Contra‘s got the monopoly on front-runner status for the time being. It’s not perfect, but it’ll hold its own, and you can probably expect it to make several Top 10 lists (it has a good shot at mine) nearly a year from now.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
White Sky $2
California English $1.50
Taxi Cab $1
Giving Up the Sun $1.50
Diplomat’s Son $1
I Think Ur a Contra $1
Ezra Koenig: Lead vocals, guitar
Rostam Batmanglij: Keyboards, synths, backing vocals
Chris Tomson: Drums, backing vocals
Chris Baio: Bass, backing vocals
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Originally published on Epinions.com.