What’s been the focal point of Vampire Weekend’s appeal — and what has attracted just as many detractors as it’s afforded them rabid enthusiasts — is their use of juxtaposition. It isn’t a subtle component of their overall makeup, either, as a passing glance at the cover for their sophomore album illustrates immediately: a blandly pretty blonde in a polo shirt that sports a popped-collar stares blankly with the title, Contra, laying across her chest, a political term that will likely pass over the heads of a majority of the band’s fanbase. As soon as the group burst onto the indie scene just a few short years ago (although it seems a lifetime in today’s unquenchable culture of instant gratification), their Ivy League backgrounds meshed up like clingy static friction against their approach to indie pop. It both excited and infuriated an audience raised on dirty rock and roll that privileged youth could revel so unabashedly in their love of African pop and worldbeat, music that is surely removed from their own heritage and experiences. This surface image could have easily swallowed up a precious band like Vampire Weekend had it not been for their indelible way with a pop tune, their ebullience offering a fresh, stimulating balance to their storied credentials.
Taking that mastery of adjacency and following it to its inspired outgrowth, the New York foursome hardly reign in what’s deemed them so divisive to begin with. Working with an expanded palette of tones and colors, courtesy of band member and producer Rostam Batmanglij, Vampire Weekend pull at the boundaries of their signature sound like taffy, framing their ruminations on social status and the diminishing line between high and low culture with enough self-awareness to keep the clever wordplay inhabiting these songs from becoming forcibly coy. Frontman Ezra Koenig spits his lyrics with a piss and vinegar that lends his stuttery vocal spasms a certain weight — a groundedness crucial to sidestepping the pitfalls of kitsch, especially given the borderline obscure junk culture he trades in on — while battling righteousness by retaining a light, fluttery delivery.
Following their spinning whims with the sugary pertinacity of a child ransacking a candy store, hopping from punk and new wave to reggae and Afro-pop to synth-pop and electro then back again (sometimes within the same song), that contagious energy flows throughout the album like a thread binding their explorations together like a scrapbook. These feel like the exciting discoveries youth offers visits to exotic, foreign locales, yet it never feels studied or stilted, because the band is smart enough, and agile enough, as pop musicians to keep things brisk and melodic even when they’re castigating their peers. Juxtaposing subject matter and delivery with such blinking, skittery enthusiasm — and with such contrasting expressions — proves to be as versatile as it is effective, not once succumbing to repetition, thanks to the variance of their execution.
Even when Koenig skirts overcooking his fussy diction with elongated, shoehorned phrases (“Sweet carob rice cakes, you don’t care how the sweets taste / Fake Philly cheesesteak but you use real toothpaste”), they’re sprinkled with such a deliriously sweetening sensation of aural confetti that it’s easier to snicker along with his ambition than scoff at his pretense. Elastic, controlled playing from an empathetic band who rarely fail at complementing their frontman, daring arrangements, and bright, glowing production push those phrases forward and create bridges to new ground. Scarce as it is to find musicians who take flaws and invert them into inviting quirks, this may be a part of what makes them so quickly grating to the skeptics. Yet, it’s also what gives them an unpredictable flair that helps them retain the revitalizing nature that propelled them to the top of the indie charts with their self-titled 2007 album.
Vampire Weekend may have moved on from the jittery precociousness of their debut in some aspects, but there’s no apologetic undercurrents roiling underneath here. That assertive backbone is as admiring today as it is lovable, especially in a world where there really is something for everyone, granting even their most avid advocates the opportunity to move on to greener pastures when the backlash falls. Yet the band doesn’t trade in youthful oblivion for maturity quite as hastily as an overwhelming slew of sophomore releases tend to; they merely transcend hype by keeping their heads and ideas grounded as their aspirations soar. This isn’t music to change your life, it’s music to enliven it, and their recognition of such an unassuming position is refreshing in an era where everyone seems to be striving for substance instead of allowing it to breathe on its own.
Skipping from the sun-kissed electro-funk of “Giving Up the Gun” to the swirling Auto-Tuned “California English” on paper may sound messy, but Vampire Weekend’s strength is in occupying the same space with sprawling, wide-reaching ideas without sacrificing the ties that hold them together. Choppy, abstract rhythms and spiky, prickly guitars punctuate “Cousins” while rubbery pulses and chamber pop instrumental cues trade off on each other in “Run”. Ezra Koenig is just as likely to meditate on a dying relationship in “Taxi Cab” as he is the Iraqi war in “Holiday” or sunbathing with a sprightly Mexican drink in the bold opening statement, “Horchata”. His eye for detail is essential to stringing these disparate strands together, from faking horror on the streets of Manhattan to barely containing a sense of endless possibilities in the face of escaping the stresses of the real world with a new love. By hitting on such commonplace subjects in a young adult’s life with a keen, observant eye and the well-read, articulate quip of his pen, Koenig’s wire-walking act between compassion and overindulgence graces Vampire Weekend with a nimble, affecting touch sorely lacking in their peers.
Contra may not propose much of a rebuttal to those who thumbed their nose up at the band’s past work, but it’s not difficult to see how it could strengthen their core audience while netting them some new fans at the same time. These aren’t songs that will define boundaries or alter music’s landscape as much as help refine and expand them. These are songs that offer sharp, bracing takes on modern life; songs that — we suspect — will grow with us and serve to capture a moment in our youth where the little details and embellishments were just as important as the bigger picture they populated. With that achievement, Vampire Weekend offer us a spirited, hopeful start to 2010.