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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

An album of ‘Contra’-dictions

Published: January 29, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

The problem that’s plagued Vampire Weekend as a band has been that, while audiences might enjoy music that can be played while yachting, that won’t change the resentment and distrust towards those select few that dare to be part of a yacht club. And though I have no idea if any of the members of Vampire Weekend actually are members of any such club, that doesn’t change the fact that all their output is so deliberately marinated in privilege and Brahmin, blue-blood affectations that it is hard to engage with the music itself.

The band’s latest, “Contra,” does avoid a sophomore slump, reprising and reinterpreting the themes in their eponymous debut while exploring new territory. And there’s no doubt the album is an enjoyable listen, full of those delightfully quirky pop and Afrobeat touches that earned their first album equal measures of scorn and praise.

But while “Contra” is less pretentious, it’s also, in many ways, more problematic. The album is positioned as a reference to the Clash’s “Sandinista!”, alluding to the Nicaraguan contras who the Reagan administration supported by selling arms to Iran illegally. Indeed, the song “I Think Ur a Contra” references the Clash song “Complete Control.” But the reference feels facile, because Vampire Weekend’s cultivated preppy aesthetic is so apolitical; the opening song’s reference to horchata, used for its rhyme scheme, is the kind of posturing awareness of “indigenous people” that involves listening to “world music” without actually differentiating local people and issues. In essence, there’s a lot of flat-out appropriation without the kind of political or musical consideration that the Talking Heads, the Clash or even Paul Simon employed, and the album feels lacking for it.

That said, there is the band’s newly discovered tendency towards epic choruses and letting the music breathe, a positive development indeed. Ezra Koenig’s vocals have become more varied, moving in and out of different ranges and mostly abandoning the stilted speak-singing pauses that made their debut sound so twee in places.

The first half of the album is not especially compelling, though it is catchy and different-enough sounding to hold interest. It’s the latter half, though, where Vampire Weekend begins to shine, assimilating a wide variety of ideas, even though some are less successful than others; let’s just say that Kanye, Lil’ Wayne and Koenig would all be better served by avoiding Auto-tune. But “Cousins” and “Giving Up the Gun” provide a one-two punch of rhythmic joy, blending percussion, electronics and fairly straightforward melodic components far more effectively than their debut. It’s also here that Koenig’s lyricism shines: using oddly seductive turns of phrase, he manages to rein in his GRE-ready vocabulary tendencies to produce evocative, twisty lines that meander in and out of the melody.

Where the Clash’s influence really shows is the reggae-tinged centerpiece of the album, “Diplomat’s Son,” which revolves around a well-deployed MIA sample. The penultimate track calls to mind the sparse but leading percussion of “Straight to Hell,” periodically dropping the sample and melody for brief interludes. Koenig has never sounded quite so compelling or honest as when he croons, “All I want to do is use you.”

That song is followed by “I Think Ur a Contra,” a good track that nonetheless perfectly embodies the problems involved in the approach to “Contra.” Koenig’s a big hardcore fan, and it’s a shame that more of the Clash/hardcore activist sensibility infuses this closing song. Koenig uses being a Contra as a metaphor for a dissolving relationship, but there’s a lack of depth or acknowledgement to the political aspect of the metaphor. It’s the same reason why the African influences in this album pale to those in “Graceland,” and four intelligent Columbia grads should be able to better engage in the meanings and implications of their influences. Without any trace of that consideration, it feels more like they’re engaging in wholesale appropriation. “Contra” is a fun album, well-constructed and worth a few spins, and a band with this much talent needs to find something to say, because they already have the skills to say it