January 17, 2010: Vampire Weekend, Contra

Since I first saw the title and cover art, I had been kinda secretly hoping that Contra would be a concept album about a Patty Hearst-like figure. Not like I would expect that Vampire Weekend would actually be up for that sort of narrative ambition, but upper-crust socialite turns leftist guerrilla seems like the perfect subject matter for them, no? Not to mention that, if they were to make any explicit mention of anything political, even barely, it would no doubt set off another crazy firestorm of quasi-controversy across the interwebs. Which of course would be awesome.

But sadly, no: no such surprises here. Contra is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. Because it’s a Vampire Weekend album, it’s full of gentle, peppy, tasteful, and ultimately harmless pop songs. And because it’s a follow-up to a successful debut, it tries a little too hard sometimes, which unfortunately works against the easygoing vibe that is the band’s strongest suit.

Weirdly enough, VW seem to want to play right into the hands of their detractors with Contra‘s opening tracks: “Horchata”‘s chorus is nice enough, but the structure of the song the surrounds it is disjointed, making those self-consciously clever rhymes stick out like a sore thumb. And is the point of “White Sky” to justify all of the constant annoying comparisons to Graceland? It was as if the band was saying, “Oh, you think that last album ripped off Graceland? Well, we’ll show you what it sounds like when we really try to rip off Graceland.”

Thankfully, apart from the occasional WTF moment (what’s up with the Autotune on “California English”? Is the end of “Run” supposed to have all those off-sounding harmonies?), the rest of Contra is pretty good. One can only hope that “Holiday” and “Cousins” represent the vanguard of fourth-wave ska— after all, who best to revive it than NYC hipsters? If not that, then perhaps the electro-tinged reggae of “Diplomat’s Son” might spark something. The increased presence of keyboard burbles and flourishes is generally welcome, although they do go overboard with “Giving Up The Gun”, which comes off as the kind of post-Postal Service moody techno-pop tailor-made for mall PAs, banking commercials, and middling teen-movie soundtracks. It’s a pretty naked crossover bid, the most radio-friendly (and least VW-like) song on the album.

Because its missteps are a little more egregious than on Vampire Weekend, Contra doesn’t hang together as an album quite so well. But that’s not such a crime these days, and anyway, VW seems more like a singles band that only happened to luck into a ridiculously solid first album. So as long as they keep churning out great singles (more “Cousins” and less “Horchata”, if you please), I’ll be happy.