Vampire Weekend: Contra

Contra's songs offer sharp, bracing takes on modern life and the album could strengthen their core audience, while netting them some new fans at the same time.

Vampire Weekend


Label: XL
US Release Date: 2010-01-12
UK Release Date: 2010-01-11

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.






Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.