Wednesday, April 07, 2010

MUSIC: Vampire Weekend's Contra

This review originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Illinois Entertainer.

(XL Recordings)

For those like myself who do give a fuck about an Oxford Comma—as I suspect Vampire Weekend does despite their apparent disdain—precision, clarity, and imagination are the core of invention. Nobody sounds like Vampire Weekend. They sound like bits and pieces of a lot of familiar musics, but since they appeared in 2008 with their eponymous debut, theirs has been a singular sound. Which presents a problem for album number two: is this unique musical amalgam a one-note, one-album sound, or can the band expand on its debut and make it worth a return trip?

The answer is mostly yes.

Contra is undoubtedly a VW album. It’s still essentially Western Afro-pop by way of smarty-pants Columbia grads, but this time around what sounded a little thin and reedy on Vampire Weekend is much fuller, more lush, and more rhythmically varied. Like earlier bands that built their foundations on rhythms foreign to most rock fans (Talking Heads, XTC, The Feelies), VW songs succeed or falter primarily on the strength of the rhythm beds. Despite the loose feel of these songs, drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio play with remarkable precision, creating in-the-pocket grooves that are so inviting and playful that they’re hard to resist. The bottom end of “California English,” though alternately spare and spastic, provides the perfect rhythm bed for singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig and guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij’s flitting and astral melodies. The band pushes the debut sound here with (thankfully) brief flashes of Auto-Tune and a punctuating string section. The slow and gentle “Taxi Cab” pushes the sound even farther by subtraction: a thick, pulsing bass, some grand and harpsichord-y piano lines, hand claps, and Koenig’s surprisingly versatile and vulnerable voice create the soundtrack to this break-up tale of regret and the girl from the right side of the tracks (“You were standing on another track/Like a real aristocrat”). There are plenty of the jubilant, Loketo-style bubbling guitars that so clearly defined VW’s debut, but now the over-used Paul Simon’s Graceland reference/comparison indicates sheer critical laziness.

Lyrically, Vampire Weekend seems a J.D. Salinger band—or a Royal Tenenbaums band for those who don’t know any better. Their songs are peopled with yacht club kids (“Funny how the other private schools had no Hapa Club”), eggheady word play (“Contra Costa, Contra Mundum, contradict what I say”—a freakin’ papal reference!), and undergrads who traffic in white sailing pants, Steely Dan, and exceptional blow. No beef with that—they’re interesting people—and Koenig’s language play is really quite refreshing. In the propulsive “Cousins,” Koenig characterizes two cousins by family economic status: one “was born with ten fingers and you’re gonna use them all” and the other’s “birth right is interest, you could just accrue it all.” Vampire Weekend isn’t a blue-collar band, but there’s a bazillion of those out there, right?

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