Sunday, January 24, 2010

Album Review: Vampire Weekend-Contra

Hype:to create interest in by flamboyant or dramatic methods; promote or publicize showily: a promoter who knows how to hype a prizefight.

Divide: to separate into parts, groups, sections, etc.

When asked to describe Vampire Weekend's short history as a band, these are two words that come immediately to mind. Hype, because they were immediately thrown into the "hype machine" created by the media. Divide, because they created a divide among music fans, and you either loved or hated them. Honestly, I can say that I was one who neither loved or hated them, at least upon first listen of their self-titled debut album. I liked certain elements they offered, but was unimpressed as a whole with what they were doing. It took a few listens, but eventually I became hooked on that album's clean, simple sound and production, and the witty lyrics. The fact that the band hailed from an Ivy League school (Columbia University) didn't really have too much of an effect about how I felt about the music.

Now, less than two years after their debut, their follow-up, Contra, comes to the forefront of the music world (the fact that Contra debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, to me, is pretty awesome). After listening to this album a couple times, I've come to the conclusion that Vampire Weekend has done nothing to win over their haters, but to me, that's a good thing. They're secure with who they are musically and lyrically, and the fact that they've embraced this instead of running from it shows me that they're probably more ready for the spotlight than a lot of bands that secure it as quickly as they have.

The album kicks things off with Horchata, which is an unusual choice for an album opener. Instead of starting things off with a punchy, catchy number, Horchata is breezy, mellow, and altogether different. They immediately manage the "different, but still them" thing that so many bands try, but fail at. Right away, it's apparent that Vampire Weekend is a band that could write great songs without even trying. The lyrics are appropriately light, but singer Ezra Koenig knows how to wordplay. He rhymes "Horchata" with "balaclava", "Aranciata", and "masada", but instead of sounding forced (which is a serious risk one runs when rhyming weird, random seeming words), it sounds completely natural.

Next track, White Sky, starts off with an electronic rhythm that sounds like it comes straight from a Nintendo game. During the chorus, Ezra shows off a falsetto that wasn't even hinted at before. Something one can't help but notice is the complete lack of guitar over the first two songs. It makes it's first appearance in third track, Holiday, but it's a bit more punchy than the perfectly clean sound of before.

Fourth track, California English, features chaotic drumming, echoed vocals, and orchestral and electronic backings. Although this combination seems odd on paper, it really works in execution. Ezra also shows some guitar playing abilities on this song that were only hinted at in the past.

Taxi Cab is a slower number that sounds like it could have come off any number of 80's albums. The lyrics are at once simple and clever. Backed by a plinking piano riff and electronic beats, not to mention a harpsichord solo, this song is probably my favorite on the album.

First single, Cousins, is the closest to punk Vampire Weekend has ever gotten. That being said, the only thing is has in common with most punk music is it's tempo. If anything, the tone of the guitar and the controlled chaos of the music remind me a bit of The Clash. This is the closest the band gets to the sound of their first album, but it's still pretty different than anything they've done before.

Diplomat's Son shows the diversity of the band's influence, as they sample fellow XL Recordings artist M.I.A. The band closes the album off with I Think Ur a Contra, which is as close as the band gets to a political statement, albeit one within a twisted love-lost song. Musically, it sounds largely like a sound collage that would have fit in well with John Lennon's avant-garde phase, at least until the chorus kicks in. Toward the end, the melody takes shape a little more distinctively, as we hear both piano and acoustic guitar fit their way into the tune.

One thing that is immediately apparent with this album is that there's no standout track. There's not a single song on here I'd skip ahead to get to. As this was the case with their first album as well, I'm sure this won't create issues in my future enjoyment of Contra. In a way, I respect that fact, as the band could have gone for the brass ring and written an obvious single in an attempt at major mainstream success. However, they've obviously become very comfortable in their own skins, and are happy with what they're doing. Very rarely do you have a band that can so effortlessly combine the catchy and the quirky as well as Vampire Weekend has done here. Although we're less than a month into 2010, it's probably not too early to say that this one will likely find it's way onto my top ten list of the year.

Taxi Cab