In the spirit of trying to remain impartial to the multitude of commentary surrounding Contra
and its various dissenters, critics, rabid fans and the like, I'll pretend not to hear any of you yelling at me. Not surprisingly, Vampire Weekend has found its second record even more polarizing than the first. Vampire Weekend
was a fun, poppy affair if not directly influenced by anything and everything it was accused of ripping off, but it put the band on the map, gave them some cred and a decent record deal, and certainly made them a household name. They are not the only poster children of the slightly "mainstream indie" (and least in my mind) but they are beloved by more than just people with popped collars. In short, there was a time that you bought into this band. Don't lie.
Now they've been branded by the media, as some have observed, as making a jump from New York prep school to lazy California-chic (in theory), but what does that even mean? I think that this chatter is neither here nor there. No one who cares about music cares about which location they discuss more in their songs, or what their "brand" is (even if they clearly have one, and its deceiving the press). It may be unfair to continue to discuss their influences on their sleeve, but at least its about the music, and not about Ezra Koenig wearing a California T-shirt in press photos.
The way I see it, Contra
is a bit of a fragmented reality in terms of the bands musical trajectory based on the music, epitomized by the difference between two songs: "Horchata" and "Cousins." While "Cousins" is definitely a more all-over-the-place song, it represents a fun loving, albeit messy band that can take the style they're accused of (and guilty of) and turn it into something sprightly and enjoyable. This is obviously the direction I like. The other, "Horchata" represents the insufferable caricature of themselves that many angry critics have claimed; blatant and unwarranted use of terms like balaclava, chorus effects, melodies and drums that have a distinctly "world music" type aesthetic (though not necessarily totally there), and xylophones. Ugh.
The first half or so of the album falls in the middle or leans too heavily towards "Horchata," all of which is decidedly more mellow than their first affair. Something positive: the band has really embraced their sound and neglecting to try and change perceptions. And that is totally fine if you love Vampire Weekend (and most of you do, probably). They write catchy songs, with a specific, easy to digest sound that is both recognizable and unobtrusive. That is a recipe for success, usually defined as "pop." And if our poptions (sorry) are this or Ke$ha, then give me a big helping of Vampire Weekend with a side of California English.
My moment of zen: after "Cousins", something different happens. The blippy undertones creeping throughout the record kind of start to take over. Jungle drums cede to the straight up 808 sounding stuff (which admittedly has been there the whole time). "Diplomat's Son" is more of an experiment than anything else before it, and suddenly I'm paying attention. "What's going on here?" "I Think UR A Contra" is perhaps the weirdest, almost a total departure from the cut-and-dry feel of the rest. Sounds bounce around behind Koenig's free-form melody, they use a real piano very clearly, and the whole thing feels a thousand percent less contstained than the rest. It's actually kind of captivating, in a free fall kind of way. Taking this lens and applying it to the record in retrospect, it becomes really enjoyable. The band has grown into their shoes, and although those shoes are neon-green and loud as hell, they wear them with pride.
I enjoyed that VW could take their sound and kind of warp it a little; experimenting with new textures and chords (towards the end at least). But the bottom line is more of a solidifying of an aesthetic, one that has been criticized as biting or ripping off, that can now only be attributed to one band. It is easy to blow off the band as kitschy or gimmicky, but think of how many kitschy, gimmicky things we all love on a daily basis. After all, it is a hell of a lot easier to admit you enjoy something than to pretend to hate it to seem cool. -joe puglisi
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MP3: Vampire Weekend - "Horchata" (Contra)
Vampire Weekend on Myspace