A Slice of Fried Gold

Review: Vampire Weekend - Contra

Monday, January 4, 2010

When a band releases a successful first album they are placed in a very unenviable position once they decide to follow it up. You have a fork in the road as a collective of artists: keep on the path that worked so well the first time or forge ahead in an entirely new direction because that is what feels right.

The former decision is tricky because of two reasons. First, if you're successful in your venture you are questioned by fans because you didn't attempt to expand your sound and challenge yourself. Second, if you aren't successful you are dismissed as a one hit wonder who got lucky (if that is at all possible when it comes to art).

If you make the latter decision you are faced with very similar realities. Attaining your goal brings you the onslaught of fans who lament the loss of the band they used to love, while botching the job drives fans to question how talented you are (again).

Given that Vampire Weekend didn't just release a successful debut but perhaps the most universally acclaimed debut of the past decade save The Strokes initial release Is This It, this pressure is even greater upon them. What could they do to possibly survive the expectations?

Well, to me, it appears that they selected the option so many artists miss. Following the lead of other immediate successes like The Strokes or Interpol, Vampire Weekend created a fairly similar album to their debut while expanding their sound in other directions they were interested in.

While Contra is not the top to bottom stunner that their self titled debut was, I find it hard to fault them for most any decision they made and it is almost as enjoyable of a listen in a whole different way.

I think part of the reason why they struck gold once again is similar to why The Strokes did as well. While the band is great as a whole, each individual artist has disparate interests that they bring into the equation. VW is much the same way, although I think as a band they are more top heavy with Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij bringing most of the creative heat.

In between their self titled debut and Contra we've seen pieces of what to expect to be added to their sound. Whether it's Rostam Batmanglij's work with Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles in their electropop side project Discovery or Ezra Koenig's singing on The Very Best's "Warm Heart of Africa", you see a lot of the warm washes of electronic influences that eventually will permeate through Contra.

While we still have the instruments in hand from time to time, gone are the days when they sell us with pure pop blasts crafted around angular guitars, drums and Koenig's vocals like they did with debut single "A-Punk." Okay, maybe even that is a lie as they still manage to have a knock your socks and shoes off two minute and 26 second jam in lead single "Cousins." But the point is, this band is a one that keeps all of the charm from their first album but pours it more into dreamy, atmospheric soundscapes.

The album begins with two tracks that almost act as rubrics for what we should expect from this album - "Horchata" and "White Sky." "Horchata" was the first track we heard off this album and something that was initially off putting to me. Yet, it has steadily grown and worked to ably prepare me for what to expect from this album with its pulsing synths, swirling strings, and charming steel drums. "White Sky" takes it to the next level, and in many ways feels like what the Koenig sung track from Discovery's album should have sound like: jangly synths, driving drums, and perfect opportunities for Afropop influenced vocal affectations (particularly in the chorus). A perfect intro to their new sound.

Of course, this is naturally where my two least favorite tracks fall. "Holiday" feels like a Vampire Weekend contribution to a The Strokes cover album - it's a decent song but feels too ordinary for them, while "California English" is burdened with borderline laughable auto-tune and cheesy instrumentation during the chorus. The song is partially saved by a very strong final minute or so when the strings kicked in, but these two tracks are my least favorite VW releases to date.

"Taxi Cab" and "Run" return us to the more dreamy elements of the first two tracks, with buoyant synths, twinkling pianos, and Koenig's lilting vocals making these two of the stronger tracks on the album. These are perhaps the prettiest songs the band has ever released and stand out as unique even amongst their brethren on this album.

"Cousins" comes next, and as I said this track is a bomb of energy. It comes at the perfect moment, as VW cared for their track listing on this album. They knew after the last tracks their listeners would be a bit slowed down, and "Cousins" is the perfect remedy to that.

The trio at the end are where the VW boys absolutely knock it out of the park though. Starting off with warbled synth pulses in the beginning, "Giving Up the Gun" quickly dives into an almost hysterically awesome driving guitar rhythm. Like "White Sky", this fits what I was hoping for from Koenig's track on Discovery's album. It's a well crafted pop gem with eclectic instrumentation arrangements that seem to dive in and out at the most random of times.

It's impossible to deny "Diplomat's Son". This is one of the most original songs they've ever released and perhaps their best, starting off feeling like an Amadou et Mariam track with an Afropop like chant being enveloped by soft vocals and warm synth from the very get go. It ends up being a six minute stunner that strongly emphasizes Koenig's charming croon and Rostam's ability to create an almost ambient hip hop structure that never seems to overwhelm. That the second half of the track mixes the tempo up to the point where it often doesn't feel like the same song should be surprising, but it isn't. It is inviting however as it provides an almost spellbinding power to the close of the track.

"I Think Ur a Contra" is to me the most cinematic and atmospheric track the band has ever done. It's for the most part soft, sweet synth throughout (with mini-glitches thrown in throughout) and Koenig holding notes to the maximum length that will allow him to still be melodic. It's a high point in terms of warmth and genuine feel to the album, and by the time the strings wash over you around the two minute, 40 second mark you start to feel that this is a fitting coda to an exceptional album.

My apologies for length. I love Vampire Weekend and think this album is quite good, and I think it is one of those albums that will connect with people quite effortlessly like their debut did. Perhaps not to the same degree, but in a whole new and exciting way.

Vampire Weekend - Contra: A-


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