Monday, January 11, 2010

Fun with Fangs

Vampire Weekend – Contra (XL)

Pretty much every review and feature I’ve read on Vampire Weekend in the past couple of months starts in the same way – with a lengthy examination of supposed critiques of the band as inauthentic ‘cultural tourists’. I’m still wondering precisely who these detractors are. Every review of ‘Contra’ so far has been at least positive, and it seems as if every journalist is trying to position themselves as valiant defenders of this band against a constant stream of invective that doesn’t really seem to exist. Most of us seem to accept that they are privileged and educated New Yorkers – but this doesn’t stop us from enjoying either their witty lyrics or their enthusiasm for African rhythm and harmony. If this music opens doors to Congolese soukous music or the rich contemporary sounds of Mali, this surely cannot be a bad thing.

‘Contra’ is a typical second album in that it consists in part of laudable attempts to develop and diversify alongside a handful of tracks that could have sat comfortably on their debut. ‘Cousins’, somewhat impressively, is an even spikier and more insistent rewrite of ‘A-Punk’ and ‘Holiday’ is a ska-tinged piece of angular post-punk. There’s nothing remotely surprising on either track, including their inherent infectiousness that borders on irritating.

Late last year, the band already gave clues that the full album wouldn’t be quite that simple by posting opening track ‘Horchata’ as a free download. This track amplifies the African influences to almost dizzying and saccharine levels, with its percussion and thumb pianos. It’s also a brilliant song, with Ezra Koenig’s near-nonsense wordplay operating in excelsis.

Much of the rest of the album downplays the familiar strafing and staccato guitar lines in favour of a lush texture dominated by synths and keyboards. It is, on the whole, a less taut and more expansive proposition. Rostam Batmanglij never seemed like a particularly skilled keyboardist, and many of the parts here are quite minimal. Yet the arrangements and overall sound, in which Batmanglij plays the pivotal role, add up to something invigorating and intriguing. There’s a deceptive simplicity to many of these tracks – the detail often matters more than the fundamental elements.

Initially I wasn’t sure about the excess treatment on ‘California English’ – all vocoder gloss – but the track somehow ends up sounding effortless and fluid. Similarly, whilst on first listen to the epic ‘Diplomat’s Son’, the slightly cloying plinky-plonk piano stands out, repeated listens reveal a plethora of riches, from its unpredictable shifting rhythms to its wonderful vocal arrangement. The most impressionistic moment comes with ‘I Think Ur A Contra’, on which the band manage to craft something emotionally affecting beneath their characteristic archness. Perhaps best of all is ‘Taxi Cab’, an almost-ballad that comes across like a brilliantly imagined hybrid of Salif Keita and early Depeche Mode. On these tracks, not only as the musical context been refined, but Koenig has ironed out some of his more provocative vocal quirks in favour of a more understated and subtle delivery. This is no bad thing – and it helps make the band sound less in thrall to the likes of Talking Heads.

Koenig’s lyrics might well be meaningless, but he certainly delights in the way language can trip off the tongue. On ‘Cousins’, he’s particularly exuberant: ‘Dad was a risk-taker/His was a shoemaker/You, greatest hits 2006 little list-maker’ - it sounds like he’s, ahem, gently parodying nerdy music bloggers. Sometimes the lyrics are just joyfully ridiculous (‘In December, drinking Horchata/I look psychotic in a balaclava’). Yet even on a song where political metaphors abound (‘I Think Ur A Contra’), Koenig is capable of isolated moments of disarming directness (‘Never pick sides, never choose between two, well I just wanted you…’).

Amidst all the cleverness, what really comes across is Vampire Weekend’s mastery of the simple pop song. For all its drive to be more adventurous and sonically diverse, ‘Contra’ is still an album full of memorable hooks. It’s hard to know how many albums of this nature a band can produce before their ideas become formulaic – but, for now, it works just fine. ‘Contra’ is short, but very, very sweet.

No comments: