ALBUM REVIEW The Columbia crew goes to Cali
Vampire Weekend’s Contra brings you an eclectic, experimental mix of Afro beats and rambling synths
Vampire Weekend’s debut album in 2008 surfed the crest of the collegiate retro-pop wave (with the likes of Chester French, This is Ivy League). As everyone in the industry knows, a band’s image is as important as music. Although there have been many great musicians, those lacking a visual concept often find themselves eclipsed in popularity by bands with less talent but better taste in sneakers.
Vampire Weekend succeeds where others may fail. They are not your stereotypical indie rockstars. Bright-eyed, freshly-scrubbed and sporting Sperry Topsiders, they came together at Columbia University. Vampire Weekend is to indie pop-rock as Kid Cudi is to traditional rap. However, the conventions are always being defied and Vampire Weekend’s open defiance of the conventional rockstar image seems to have become something of a novelty: intellectual pop stars. Well, it does appeal to the crowds of Buddy-Holly-bespectacled youths studying liberal arts and shuffling about in skinnies and flannel. Although Vampire Weekend is associated with trust-fund babies who cavort about in faux-hip glory, their music actually satirizes that crowd.
Ezra Koenig, the band’s vocalist, recently admitted in a Rolling Stone interview his frustration with the misperception of his band: “Sometimes I feel a little bummed. To me, it’s very obvious that we’re using satire and irony.” However, I was not surprised when I saw the album cover of Contra pasted all over the Urban Outfitters stores and website. A quaint Polaraoid featuring wide-eyed blonde who could pass for a Ralph Lauren model stares blankly ahead, the signature polo player on her shirt branding her. I couldn’t help chuckle at the irony.
Ironic or not, Vampire Weekend’s first album was associated with the East Coast liberal arts scene. In the sophomore album, Contra, the East Coast band has teleported to California. Ezra proclaims: “It’s pretty obvious it’s not a xerox of the first one. We made it our goal with this one to do new things, to progress, not to have a clean break from the first album but keep moving forward [sic].” While the Afro-centric roots still remain, there’s more auto-tune, guitar plucks, crooning, Ezra’s falsetto, and words stringed together — more sound than singing really. The music has come farther in Contra, oftentimes monopolizing the pieces. The vocals and the instruments often swap roles, the vocals setting up the piece and the instruments declaring the melodies.
There are definitely certain songs that seem to blur into a long trail of instrumental drums and synthesizers. While Ezra has insisted that the second track is not a complete break from the first one, I think only a couple tracks hearken back to their debut album. “Taxi Cab” is particularly reminiscent of Vampire Weekend’s earlier tracks, both in style and lyrics. There’s an insecurity and deep melancholy associated with the tenderness of growing up: “unsentimental, driving around / sure of myself, sure of it now / you stand this close to me / like the future was supposed to be.”
Vampire Weekend’s distinct style may be its downfall: Ezra’s soothing croons can lend a homogenous feel to many tracks. But the band is a trendsetter. In Contra, the band takes all the expectations of another pop-rock album about girls and college and throws them out the window. It is definitely an album that takes multiple listens before it grows on you — unless you’re the type that quickly takes to colorful amalgamations of musical riffs. The variety of music that Vampire Weekend draws from has grown wider. The band has become more inclined to take risks and create sounds that are unabashedly weird and quirky. The title of the newest album, Contra sums up their goal. “Contra is anybody you try to frame as your opposite, as not a party of your world,” Koenig explained to Rolling Stone. Like it or not, music elites will have to make space for this band’s particular brand of contra.