Music

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

Contra

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

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.

8

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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