Vampire Weekend – Contra

"...remain the most unlikely crowd pleasers"

The success of Vampire Weekend feels right and wrong in equal measure. On the one hand they have a key to the locker marked ‘Amazing Pop Songs’ and know how to use the contents perfectly. Take ‘A-Punk’ for example. In just 136 seconds it introduced the New York band to the world and united them in a joyful jig to its stop start beats, skittering guitar lines and huge sing-along choruses. The instant charm of ‘A-Punk’ was not a one-off either, as ten more songs on Vampire Weekend’s 2008 self-titled debut album proved.

Alongside The Strokes ‘Is This It?’, ‘Vampire Weekend’ stands as one of the best albums of the past ten years with every song sounding like a classic. People may balk at seeing Vampire Weekend’s name alongside the unquestioned integrity of The Strokes, which leads us to why Vampire Weekend’s position in the nation’s hearts is something of an oddity.

Like Julian Casablancas and co. they come from privileged backgrounds and have the air of a trust fund about them. Unlike The Strokes, however, they are not ashamed to admit it, even going so far as to make it their USP. Wearing pastel shades and singing songs about grammar and your Ivy League education would get most people a lot of funny looks, however, as anyone who went to a festival in Britain or America in recent years will tell you, the people love Vampire Weekend.

It is this juxtaposition between what shouldn’t work on paper and hearing fifteen thousand people singing back every word of ‘Mansard Roof’ that is so intriguing about Vampire Weekend. In a parallel universe somewhere Peter Gabriel is laughing out loud at the very concept of Vampire Weekend. Even more intriguing however is how the band are supposed to follow up the break out success of their debut. Things grew organically in 2008 – there were no expectations and as the songs grew from the blog buzz to national anthems everything came easy. Things are different for new album ‘Contra’ though. The fans that took the preppy looking geeks under their wing will be expecting more of the same, but are the band willing to give it?

The answer to that question in short would be “Well, not really”. If Vampire Weekend’s first album was a celebratory hug mixed with a victory dance then ‘Contra’ represents the morning after. Woozy and dreamlike it drifts in an out of consciousness with spikes of melody and energy in places, but is ultimately defined by an overriding sense of bliss and tranquillity. That’s not to say there are not rivals to the aforementioned ‘A-Punk’ for the title of the fans’ favourite song, chief amongst these being ‘Cousins’. Played at hyper speed, it could soundtrack a madcap cartoon getaway – dodging traffic and hanging off cliff edges, it acts as a familiar friend from the past. Similar to ‘Cousins’ is ‘Horchata’. Given away as a free download to promote the album, the song may well be a considerable amount of bpm slower than ‘Cousins’ but it introduces the album nicely and is made with the traditional Vampire Weekend afro-pop DNA. Adding steel drums to the mix runs the song close to parody, but ‘Horchata’ is a pure slice of California sunshine pop and sees the return of the swirling strings from ‘M79’.

If there is a bridge between the Vampire Weekend we know and the laidback sounds of ‘Contra’ then it comes with ‘White Sky’. In 2009 Vampire Weekend’s multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij ventured out of the band and made an album with Ra Ra Riot’s Wes Miles. Going under the name Discovery, they paid homage to modern R‘n’B and electronic music in a record that was largely disappointing but has clearly acted as an influence on ‘Contra’. ‘White Sky’ is underpinned by a hypnotic synthesiser loop and, whilst far from a Dylan style musical re-invention, the frequent use of electronics on ‘Contra’ is what gives it its floaty and mystical feel. There are fleeting flirtations with the computerised sounds on ‘Taxi Cub’ and ‘Run’, but it is the album’s final three songs which embrace the options and scope that venturing away from traditional instrumentation gives a band. ‘Giving Up The Gun’ boasts a floor-shaking shimmer of a beat with Ezra Koenig’s cut glass vocals adding a beautiful second layer. ‘Diplomat’s Son’, on the other hand, moves away from the discotheque and crafts a six-minute long star trail of twinkles and flashes, which then descends into a string and piano laden middle eight as baffling as it is brilliant.

Vampire Weekend haven’t reinvented the wheel with ‘Contra’. More like they’ve decided inventing is too much like hard work and decided to go lay on the beach with some refreshing Mexican drinks and watch the sun go down instead. This album walks the fine line between the tried and tested and sparks of ingenuity with aplomb, rarely faltering (‘California English’ does contain some auto-tune though, which is about as welcome as a fly in your horchata).

With a mix of frantic and scrappy pop songs alongside blankets of processed peacefulness ‘Contra’ is a fun and always intriguing listen. Vampire Weekend remain the most unlikely crowd pleasers and long may they continue to make the unapproachable not just relevant but entirely necessary.


Words by David Renshaw

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.