Nearly two years to the date that their self-titled debut set off a myriad of arguments in indie-rock circles, Vampire Weekend has released Contra, another album of classically minded, Afro-pop-ripping, brittle, bookish pop. Expecting anything different would be like bracing for snow in Ghana in July. Vampire Weekend ignited debates that have smoldered for two years: about African-music grave-robbing by privileged whites, about authenticity vs. smugness, about whether it’s punk to be elitist, about the fastest hype cycle ever (the band was on Spin before even releasing an album), about if it’s OK to copy Paul Simon’s copy of African music. Maybe now we can get down to what is actually tangible: the 10 tracks of the splendid Contra.
There are no major stylistic shifts between Contra and Vampire Weekend, and for good reason; Vampire Weekend have no competition (apart from Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and Speaking in Tongues-era Talking Heads), so it’s not like we’ve been deluged with mounds of collegial Afro-pop records since 2008. If the boat shoe’s sole ain’t blown, why replace it? Plus, as frontman Ezra Koenig noted, it would be inauthentic for them to jump to some new style now, and claim that they never liked Upper West Side Soweto, as they coined their style. The only thing they’re trying to top is their debut album, and in too-brief flashes here, they manage to do just that.
Contra opens with the Disney-production-ready “Horchata,” the song that will probably send the people who hated the “spilled kefir on your keffiyeh” line from Vampire Weekend into hate tremors. Over rattling street percussion and swooping strings, Koenig rhymes “horchata” with “balaclava” and sings about the lack of responsibility that comes with being in college and traveling abroad. The upper crust pops up again in “Cousins,” a jaunty track that suggests a torn-down Elvis Costello production, where Koenig talks family lineage and drops wry observations like “when your birth right is interest, you can just accrue it all.” And it pops up again on the epic “Diplomat’s Son,” a six-minute, M.I.A.-sampling burner that sprawls in a way that no Vampire Weekend track ever has.
Koenig’s Upper West Side Stories caught all the publicity last time out, and that’s unlikely to change with Contra. But on this album, band producer/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij cements his case as the band’s best-kept secret. His hollow guitar lines and string arrangements on “White Sky” elevate the song. On repeated listens, it becomes clear how nuanced the performances are, once you get past the vocal histrionics in the chorus (Koenig “owws” all over the place). Same goes for his frantic, wedding-scene bells and strings on the outro of “Cousins,” the violin stabs in “California English” and the Discovery-esque R&B of “Giving Up the Gun.” And yet again, Chris Thomson (drums) and Chris Baio (bass) will go unheralded, even as they seem more and more willing to break their pieces down into building blocks in service of the song.
As the watery floating of “I Think Ur A Contra” draws the album to a close, it becomes clear that not only did the members of Vampire Weekend succeed in creating an excellent sophomore album; they’ve managed to survive long enough to outlive their hype and its attendant backlash. Contra will probably draw dissenters and devotees in even measure, but one thing cannot be debated: Vampire Weekend is the preeminent pop band working in indie-rock today.