Vampire Weekend’s superb 2008 debut album may have been that year’s most divisive record, but it could also have been the year’s most unifying. Despite soundtracking dozens of movies and adverts – and hence achieving mass popularity – the band’s 34-minute pop opus proved strong enough to withstand been broken up into brief looping jingles, maintaining a very special spot in the hearts of their more discerning listeners.
Balancing out the yinyang, the New Yorkers’ most scathing critics often seemed to be eschewing the actual music and rebelling for the sake of it (against their upbringing, their clothes, their erudition, their influences); essentially against the fact that this music was being tailor-made by four young gentleman to cater for their own exact specifications.
On your journey from shop-to-home – Contra in hand – you will realise that Vampire Weekend aren’t going to stop being themselves anytime soon, proudly ignoring the heckling of a bitter few. The front cover is emblazoned with the found image of a preppy-looking young lady from the 1980’s, modelling a customary polo shirt. Over her face, as on the debut, the name of the group is printed in the Futura typeface (recently made ‘indie’ by Wes Anderson). Furthermore, a cursory glance at the tracklisting throws up a couple more words to add to your ‘to google’ list. However, this isn’t an example of Ezra Koenig being snooty about his private education. It’s more just a case of an artist speaking in his own dialect.
The opening track – ‘Horchata’ – is named after a milky rice-based Latin American beverage which has assumedly actually been a notable quirk of his life experience; notable enough to trigger the memories and inspire the symphonies which greet it here. Like a Christmas tree from erection to decoration – from its bare beginning to its jittering melÃ©e of wintery warmth – its rich, artisan production comes to resemble the drink which stirred it.
Positively perspiring now, the following two songs are as opposingly summery to the first as is possible. As if a bright upstroking rhythm wasn’t enough, ‘Holiday’ unpretentiously reveals all within its title, striving and succeeding to move Cliff Richard down a notch on your sunroof-open July road trip playlist. Meanwhile, ‘White Sky’ puts a mild Michael Jackson vocal tic and flecks of Animal Collective on top of Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits to output a gorgeous bundle of joy. If there are going to be better songs than this in 2010, we’re in for some serious fun.
At times, it sounds as though the band is trying to slightly force experimentation. Though this isn’t to say that they ever fail, the closest they come to doing so is ‘California English’; a woozy stew whose autotuned vocals sit atop an overly-polite hardcore-esque rhythm and whose structure dupes us into thinking that the cyclic song is actually going somewhere. ‘Giving Up The Gun’ is a superior experiment; a turbo-charged, much-evolved, and spell-corrected rendition of ‘Giving Up Da Gun’, a tune by Koenig’s pre-Weekend project L’Homme Run. ‘Cousins’ is less alien, smacking of a very conscious decision to write “a new ‘A-Punk'” – a spunky dancefloor-filler with enough instrumental interludes to keep the editors of movie trailers happy – just in case the public doesn’t take too kindly to some of the moves they’ve made.
Though it’s not as if their fans are likely to snub anything here. Vampire Weekend may have joined the ranks of the likes of The Strokes, Weezer and Arctic Monkeys as another band who once produced something truly awesome and which they must then spend their entire career attempting to better, to no avail. Contra, however, is a very valiant attempt, and is one which sees them figuratively and literally graduating from the ‘Campus’ of their debut, and which reinforces the clichÃ© that a new album is just another chapter of an ongoing narrative. Or perhaps it’s more like Koenig’s second novel, featuring similar prose and familiar characters and settings to the first, but telling a whole new story in a whole new way.