Old Klingon Proverb
Revenge is a dish best served cold; but what makes it colder, still, is when it comes served with a smile. Vampire Weekend wear a mischievous grin bordering on smug smirk when delivering their second LP, Contra; a collection of ten colourful, oft-cacophonous songs that stands as tall and proud as a raised middle-finger.
Subjected to a bilious blogosphere backlash when their 2008 self-titled debut album —a blithe, breezy mixture of preppy indie-rock with rhythms and guitars gleaned from West African guitar-pop— reached pop-cultural saturation point months before it was even released, Vampire Weekend felt the vitriol of the internet era in its full-force. But, rather than be bowed by their critics, they've come out swinging with Contra.
The New Yorker quartet have responded to critics with something that, this time, won't be so readily, eagerly dismissed: an LP infinitely more interesting, inventive, and relentless than their first.
Scores on the Complex Plane
With "Horchata," Contra kicks off kicking sand in the face of those who'd doubt them: full of the band's familiar tics (Ezra Koenig rhyming "Horchata" with "Aranicata," Rostam Batmanglij's jaunty orchestrations all Wes Anderson whimsy), yet throwing new things into the complex mix: plunks of marimba, mid-stride percussion orgies, random keyboard oscillations. Gone is the rock-quartet "A-punk" that half-populated their debut; in its place is a heady collision of sounds, all topped off by Koenig's increasingly inventive phrasing and bell-clear voice. Here, Vampire Weekend are no longer indie-band-that-could, but confident studio creature.
Every song across the varied Contra is just as interesting a production-number; each tune marries genres, timbres, and meters in a way that no band ever really has before. Where Vampire Weekend's first record seemed defined by a single idea —Afro-indie/Graceland-mining/"Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa"— Contra can be defined by its myriad of ideas.
In its fleeting, fleet-footed 150 seconds, "California English" defies conventions, creates tensions, pushes forth harmonies, and goes out in a blaze of glory. Its parts are many and varied: Koenig's voice, artfully buffed by Autotune, delivers literary/geographic double-handers ("Contra Costa, Contra Mundum, contradict what I say/living like the French Connection, but we'll die in LA"), dry guitar tone drags Highlife playing through jazz-student deconstruction, manic keyboard oscillations bounce like pinging data, drums dissolve into shakes of percussion and are then overrun by drum-programming, a solemn string quartet shifts between grunting stabs fluttering filigrees, and a male chorus wails at a washed-out distance.
Elsewhere, there's a million details that, on any given spin, can jump out: the bells at the end of "Cousins", the strange modal interplay between piano and distorted drum-programming in the album-highlight "Diplomat's Son," Koenig's insane, Kate-Bush-worthy falsetto-ing in "White Sky." For a band so reduced, on their first record, to novelty status, the marriage, here, of undeniable compositional complexity and proud multi-cultural pillaging must be, to anyone listening, irresistible.
With Contra's release, Vampire Weekend won't be so easily dismissed, and, quite possibly, so ruthlessly loathed. This is a cocky, confident, commercially- and artistically- minded outing for a band refusing to take a backward step for anyone.
Record Label: XL
Release Date: January 12, 2010