Vampire Weekend have more than their fair share of detractors (query their name here on Line Out), so let’s just get a few things out of the way: Hating Vampire Weekend because they incorporate African pop sounds—because music is globalized in the 21st century—puts you on the same losing side of history as those who hated Elvis for “miscegenating” music in the 20th century. Hating Vampire Weekend because their songs reflect Ivy League educations (they formed at Columbia) or supposedly privileged class backgrounds is like hating Wes Anderson because you didn’t grow up a Tennenbaum (or for that matter a Fantastic Fox). Hating them for their music merely suggests you have bad taste or deaf ears. And while the band’s new sophomore album, Contra, isn’t likely to dissuade any haters, it sure makes a fine time out of baiting them.
The band’s been doing this—playing up the image of themselves as posh college kids and blasé cultural appropriators—since at least “Oxford Comma,” with its casual hip hop references and arch academic manners. They’re smart guys—they know what they look like, what they sound like, and what critics might think of them, and they’re more than happy to embrace that knowingness, to take people’s ideas of them and camp them up and throw them back in our faces (in the form of terrifically catchy pop songs at that).
Musically, Contra is more ranging and adventurous than the band’s debut. “Horchata” amplifies the afro-pop with swarms of plinking, Casiotone-quality kalimba and marimba (intentionally chintzy for greater verisimilitude); “Cousins” (the most frenetic thing here, basically this album’s “A-Punk”) rides a slick, fast-strumming Spanish/surf guitar line; “Run” features a burst of Mexican brass; throughout, the band’s arrangements are more complex (multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij is the band’s not-so-secret weapon here), with an increasing emphasis on stuttering synth arpeggios, plastic-y drum machine beats, and swooning, sweeping string sections.
Lyrically, as usual, the album is playful and clever and heartfelt and fascinating. On “California English,” a song that does for vernacular what “Oxford Comma” did for punctuation, Koenig delivers a bridge about notions of authenticity via fluttering, faltering Autotune, a vocal fakery employed by even the “realest” of rappers. He sings: “sweet carob rice cakes/she don’t care how the sweets taste/fake Philly cheesesteaks/but she uses real toothpaste”—carob being a sort of fake chocolate, and Philly cheesesteak being most authentic if it uses cheez-whiz, a fake cheese. (The world is full of real fakes and fake reals and shades of gray; anyone who gets too hung up over the arguable credibility of, say, an indie rock band, is sort of missing the point.)
I could go on and on trying to unravel “Diplomat’s Son,” a six minute long number that dabbles with doo-wop and dub (although hopefully an interview with the band in the near future will get to the bottom of some of this). The background vocal loop sounds so much like MIA that if it’s not actually her, it might as well be; the chorus goes, “he was a diplomat’s son/it was ‘81”; Joe Strummer of the Clash (a band VW frontman Ezra Koenig has name-checked in interviews lately) was in fact a diplomat's son (and an art school student); MIA’s “Paper Planes” sampled the Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” which appeared on Combat Rock, recorded in 1981-82; Contra can even be read as the ironic reverse image of the Clash’s Sandanista—and instead of middle class, art-school educated “punks” playing soldiers, you have a middle-class, Ivy League-educated band playing themselves. So here you have, in this conspiracy-minded reading, layers of appropriation as well as a winking awareness of punk and rock’s long history of class issues and internal contradictions (another possible meaning of Contra, as is contrarianism, that most feeble critical stance of disliking something merely because others might genuinely enjoy it). Whew.
“White Sky,” with its dizzy falsetto chorus, and “Taxi Cab,” with its stately strings, slow-percolating synths, and echoing drum machine clap, both contain scenes of Manhattan affluence, but both are from the perspective of an interloper as enamored of that life as he is removed from it (Koenig grew up in New Jersey, for what it’s worth). On the former, he sings, “look up at the buildings/imagine who might live there”; on the latter, he’s faking class-conscious reservations about using a doorman: “when the taxi door was opened wide/I pretended I was horrified/by the uniform and clothes outside/of the courtyard gate.” The phrase “like a real aristocrat” is used with some wistful fondness.
Album opener and advance single “Horchata” depicts a winter beach holiday in Mexico, but if its setting and signifiers are deliberately leisure class, its emotional core (“here comes a feeling you thought you’d forgotten,” backed by a swell of strings) is universal—the desire for escape, the pull between nostalgia and the present moment. (And anyway pop music has a long history of such songs, from, again, Elvis’ Hawaiian albums to Madonna’s “Holiday or the Go Go’s “Vacation” to the Pixies’ skewed postcard “Where is My Mind,” with Black Francis’ “swimming in the Caribbean.”) The light ska joyride of “Holiday” (not a Madonna cover) revisits the subject in the summertime; “Run” is similarly escapist. “Giving Up the Gun” is a stock weapons-as-sexual potency metaphor that nevertheless sounds charming over the track’s rock-steady 16th-note synth vibrations and stop-start rhythms.
The album ends with the almost title-track “I Think U R a Contra,” a sweet, down-tempo outro with an unexpected little acoustic guitar and congo coda that only confuses the album’s title’s possible meanings (“I think you’re a contra/I think that you lie”…“you wanted good schools/and friends with pools/you’re not a contra”). It might take a few more listens to fully decode it all—luckily, it’s a perfectly pleasurable record to put on repeat.