Album Review: Vampire Weekend – Contra

by Marie Carney on January 6, 2010

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been impatiently waiting for this album to leak for months.  The teasing release of “Horchata” made me super excited (it is still available as a free download on the band’s website).  Then, the next leak brought “White Sky” which made me stop and wonder if I really would like the album, or if Vampire Weekend would take it too far from their roots of mixing indie rock with beautifully complex afro-beats.  After 24 hours of listening pleasure I can tell you that Contra is everything you wanted whether you knew it consciously or not.  Somehow Vampire Weekend took 2008’s indie-juggernaut Vampire Weekend and ran it through a strainer, taking it apart and putting it back together with a controlled modern twist giving us a record that is smart and fresh, while still sounding like the band we know and love.  There’s a heavy hand with the production polish, but that is what makes Contra different enough to keep it exciting and new.

The task of following up a critically praised and widely adored album must be daunting.  In the hands of a less cerebral band it can go very wrong.  Here is where Vampire Weekend’s Ivy League smarts came in handy.  They knew they can’t be too different, or too similar to their previous incarnation.  They seem to be trying to find that special balance of sounding like Vampire Weekend, but not Vampire Weekend.  In my memory, no band has accomplished this feat quite so well.  A level of control, precision and thoughtfulness is evident in this album, unlike their previous work.  Lost is the sense of a band just rocking out in a club, and in its place is the sound of a band well aware that thousands of people are waiting to either vilify or sanctify this record.

Everything about this album is well thought out and controlled.  With each step forward into new territory there is a friendly pat of the familiar, encouraging us to keep going on the journey with them.  It starts with the first song,  “Horchata,” which is easily the most similar to the band’s previous work with its upbeat melody and rhythms.  This is the band we know, but with more depth.  There’s the thickly layered vocals in the chorus and the building of instruments and synths throughout the song, showing us that this is something new and more detailed.   This thick layering seems to be the musical thread that holds the album together.  You continue to get in in spades with songs like the raucous “Cousins,” which combines loud guitars and loud strings, and in the epic dancehall of “Diplomat’s Son” which at six minutes is closer to a musical journey than a song.

“Holiday” is the one exception from the controlled pace of the rest of the album.  It is a fun journey of punk/ska joy.  The band really lets loose here, freeing themselves from the tyranny of musical perfection.  Not that there is anything wrong, but the energy on this song is loose and uncontrolled, like it wants to jump out of the album and smack you in the face.  The following song, “California English” is a huge contrast.  It is reined in so much, down to the effect-saturated vocals.  Yes, that is Auto-Tune you’re hearing on a Vampire Weekend record.  I would cringe, but in their hands they make it something different than what you’ve heard before, using it along with thick reverb making the vocal sound more like an electronic instrument than a human voice.  The contrast between this modern trend and the solo strings during the bridge are particularly interesting and well thought out.

The real show piece of the record, though, is “Giving Up the Gun,” one of the biggest departures from their previous sound.  The song is soaked in old school synth-rock straight out of the ’80s, and just when you think Vampire Weekend is lost, their signature guitar sound we know and love comes in during the solo with its clear melodic hommage, if not quotation, to “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance.”  It is a beautiful moment punctuated by the lyrics:  “and though it’s been a long time you’re right back where you started from.  I see it in your eyes, and now you’re giving up the gun.”  I couldn’t put it better than that.  I love that Vampire Weekend is smart enough to know there is no use in fighting who they were.  Just embrace it and move on ahead.

Songs to download:  “Giving up the Gun” and “Run”

Song to skip when shuffling:  “Taxi Cab”

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Vanessa January 7, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Sounds awesome, can’t wait to listen to it!


dPsychc January 10, 2010 at 5:21 am

The album is way too addictive.


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