After all the hype of their first release it was inevitable that Vampire Weekend would experience blow-back from some critics. The brainy four-man band who met as students at Columbia University come from upper middle class families, studied across cultures and disciplines, and incorporate world elements into their pop songs. There were some who criticized the band for co-opting global genres. Fortunately band members have shrugged off the negative commentary and seem to be enjoying their growing fanbase.
Contra is billed as the band’s “California” album, and although there is a sunny sheen to the album and lyrical references to the state, the music retains the essence of what the band originally dubbed “Upper West Side Soweto.” As the band dives into African rhythms and joyful singing guitar chords it’s impossible not to think of Paul Simon’s Graceland or The Talking Head’s Remain in Light. The music is multilayered, complex, and the lyrics are smart. The band doesn’t stop with African influences; marimbas and Brazilian percussion sneak into “Horchata” a song named after an ancient drink that has been popular in multiple cultures.
Vampire Weekend is exceptionally good at creating insanely infectious melodies, so much so that it’s easy to overlook the fact that these catchy tunes are more complex than you realize. There are counter-melodies swimming below the major melody, often played by cello or keyboards. At times the tempo is so frenetic you wonder how the band can keep up the pace, as on “Cousins.” Lead singer Ezra Koenig tries out his high falsetto on the zippy “White Sky.” “Holiday” offers a touch of ska that sounds like fun until you realize in the last minute of the song that this is a tale of war. As the album moves forward you find yourself working to keep your balance as the band leaps through a diversity of rhythms and beats. “Taxi Cab” slows the pace down but the electronic beats, scaling piano, harpsichord and rope of cello and strings lure you into a trance like state. “Diplomat’s Son,” clocking in at over 6 minutes, hints at possible new directions for a band that is still very young and working toward a bright and curious future.
The band wraps with “I Think Ur a Contra” a song that occasionally hints at a density reminiscent of Sigur Ros. Perhaps this band isn’t done exploring the world …not yet.