Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vampire Weekend - Contra

On their debut album, Vampire Weekend name-checked Peter Gabriel. On their second album, they actually begin to sound like him.

Much has been written about these quirky hipster college kids and their cute, slightly afrobeat-influenced band. They made a splash kicking off 2008 with one of the first albums to be released of that year and repeat that timing in 2010. Contra arrives with lead singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig still writing twee-er-than-thou lyrics and the rest of the band chiming in with their shouted rhythmic "ay!"'s over some choruses. The major difference with Contra is that Vampire Weekend seem to be "maturing."

Songs on Vampire Weekend seemed to unspool with the chaotic energy of a band (no matter how staid compared to their peers) recording their first big splash of a debut album. Here, the songs don't have that energy at all. Opener "Horchata", the first song the blogosphere was exposed to from this set, sounds almost microscopically designed to present Vampire Weekend's "next step." The previous album's African tinge morphs into a Caribbean twinge. It seems like they shifted parts of their sound in a new direction, but the parts they didn't shift don't feel like a foundation. It's akin to moving only the black squares of a checkers board; experimenting with their sound without giving the experiment form.

So here we have synthesized beats (on more than a few tracks.) We have a murkier production, especially in the Brian Eno-lite ambience of "I Think Ur a Contra." It's these influences that make Vampire Weekend remind one of Peter Gabriel, only without the songcraft or vocal chops of the British worldbeat mystic. "I Think Ur a Contra" is also notable as being more down-tempo than any of the songs from their first record, a repeated occurrence on the album. Some songs on Contra are successful ("Taxi Cab", the best song on the new album, is the only one that sounds like it's a unified whole while simultaneously being good.) Most aren't. Perhaps it's the sophomore slump; one can only hope the half-formed experimentation yields a better whole next time, leaving a worthy mistake in its tread for this second album.

Where individual songs succeed, they only serve to provide the overriding criticism of the new album. "Taxi Cab"'s delicate, Magnetic Fields-like piano lilt reveals an emotional grace lacking in the other songs. "Horchata"'s tropical joy overshadows colder, bleaker soundscapes on the other upbeat tunes. "Run"'s punchy rhythms leaves the punk drive of the lead single, "Cousins", in the dust simply by sounding appropriate within its song. There are worthy songs on Contra, just not as many as on Vampire Weekend. So then there is hope for this band, as they are still young and this is just their second album. They may not become who we expected them to when their first album hit, but let's hope they get better than where this album shows them heading.


sarah e. said...

i still haven't made an attempt to listen to this whole album, but it just seems like there's something missing. i've been on the fence about VW from day one and they still haven't put anything out there that's swayed me.

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