Synthetic sounds, reggae beats, and Afro-pop
When Vampire Weekend released their self-titled debut album in January 2008, they were already riding the hype from the blogosphere. The album went on to sell half a million copies in the United States. Now, two years after Vampire Weekend, their sophomore album, Contra, might just top that record. Currently, it sits comfortably at number one on the iTunes Top Albums chart.
Signed to XL Recordings, the foursome hails from Columbia University, a factor that sometimes lands them the criticism of being preppy white kids taking from African sounds. Some even go so far as to accuse the band of ripping off Paul Simon’s Graceland in their first album. Despite this negative backlash, Vampire Weekend stays true to both their Afro-pop influences and upper-middle-class backgrounds in Contra, as if to tell off the skeptics who doubted them.
Oftentimes, a sophomore album can venture too far from the debut, sometimes to the point where listeners mistake the album to be by an entirely different band. Other times, there is no progression between the first and second albums, leaving listeners with the feeling that they’re hearing the same songs, just with different lyrics. In Contra, Vampire Weekend does a wonderful job of standing firmly on that precariously thin line.
In this new album, fans will not only recognize the sound that is so clearly Vampire Weekend, but also experience something new: the band’s curious dabbling in synthetic sounds, as evidenced in “California English,” in which the band uses pitch correction. “Diplomat’s Son” uses a reggae beat while combining M.I.A. samples with classic rock. “Giving Up the Gun” contains wooden percussion instruments as well as synthetic dings. The song “White Sky” also includes a familiar synthetic beat repeated from the band’s debut album Vampire Weekend.
Vampire Weekend released two singles from Contra titled “Horchata” and “Cousins.” While “Horchata” is cleverly written (Ezra Koenig, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, plays with multisyllabic words, rhyming “horchata” with “balaclava”) and fresh, “Cousins” leaves a lot to be desired. The song does not move forward, further evidenced by the music video, in which the band moves back and forth in an alley.
The album concludes with “I Think UR a Contra,” an echoing, somber ballad supplemented by the melancholy sounds of a piano. “I had a feeling once,” Koenig sings to an ex, “that you and I could tell each other everything.” He ends the album with the lines “Never pick sides, never choose between two, but I just wanted you.” It would seem, in this album, that the quartet has matured. So whether you love them or love to hate them, give the album a listen. It’s worth the time.