Vampire Weekend - Contra

by Al Brown Rating:7 Release Date:2010-01-11

Few other bands split opinion in 2008 like Vampire Weekend. Some of us thought their debut was a slice of classic accessible-but-intelligent indie-pop, others sneered at their Ivy-League image and particularly their partial absorption of Afro-pop aesthetics. Both sides had a point (up to a point) so it was always going to be interesting to see how the band responded to the gushing praise and the equally torrential backlash.

Things start badly with 'Horchata' a song which seems to openly court further resentment from the haters. It's full of pseudo-ethnic references - Horchata itself is a rice-milk based drink of Latin American origin - and there's slightly annoying, plinky calypso marimba all over it. Meanwhile singer Ezra Koenig bangs on about his sandals and looking "psychotic in a balaclava" with the kind of solipsistic preciousness that may even grate on his biggest fans. Said preciousness might be entirely knowing, but that doesn't make it any better in this case. The next track is 'White Sky', a synthesised afro-pop number in which Koenig sounds exactly like Paul Simon, both in vocal timbre and lyrical theme. Despite this there is a certain charm in the sparse-yet-fiddly arrangement and the Manhattan street-scene Koenig conjures up in his lyrics. Next up, 'Holiday' is not the equal of Madonna's classic, but it is almost as upbeat and at least twenty per cent as catchy (that's a compliment). It is not only about holidays, but the guilt that comes with being rich and white in a world full of suffering (plus ça change, I know). It is just punchy enough to get away with it though, despite one typically incongruous line about the font Futura.

There is experimentation in this album, but it's often unwelcome: the overtly autotuned vocals on 'California English' sound out of place perhaps because they are the only unexpected element: the rest is trademark Vampire Weekend: all busy plucked strings and syncopated rhythms. It also seems likely that the band are taking cues from their contemporaries: unusual structures and a broad palette of instruments (synths, strings, choirs, whatever sticks) have been de rigueur with East-Coast indie bands for a few years so it's no surprise to find them veering into that territory occasionally, especially on 'Cousins' and 'Run'.

This all seems vaguely affected though-underneath lurk pop songs of the type Vampire Weekend are known for-and it's when they peek out relatively unadorned that they sound best. 'Taxi Cab' is a slow burning lament to lost love with some subtle strings and shimmering piano; 'Giving Up The Gun' is a brilliantly executed high-school power ballad, a flawless exercise in nostalgia with lyrics that yearn for the past yet seem to realise the folly in doing so.

Vampire Weekend have avoided a sophomore slump then: this is no-where near as coherent or immediate as its predecessor, but it still charms much more often than it infuriates.

Alistair Brown

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