Operation Ivy League: On Vampire Weekend's Vastly Bewildering Contra
The key to enjoying Contra, Vampire Weekend's second collection of blissfully erudite yacht-punk, is to associate the album title not only with Nicaragua and Ollie North, but also the best two-player cooperative Nintendo game of all time. Global strife and home entertainment; an AK-47 and the Spread Gun; the real-life War on Terror and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Midway through "Holiday," a brisk, peppy third-wave ska ditty with ever-so-slightly distorted guitars, VW frontman Ezra Koenig drops his yelping voice to a serious murmur and purrs a brief tribute to a relative who stopped eating meat after the onset of the (current) Iraq War: "A vegetarian since the invasion/She'd never seen the word 'bombs'/She'd never seen the word 'bombs' blown up to 96-point Futura." May you live in interesting times, and may you document your reactions in interesting fonts.
This band drives people nuts. The simple, nonchalant "Holiday" is your soundest lifeline to Vampire Weekend's self-titled 2008 debut, rife with relentlessly delightful Anglo-Saxon Afro-pop and bizarre extra-musical talking points: their land of origin (Columbia, with a "u"), their preferred attire (unironic sweaters), their lyrical preoccupations (punctuation, Cape Cod, girls named Bryn). Their idea of a ghetto is Hyannis Port; their idea of a romantic overture "Walk to class/In front of ya/Spill Kefir on your keffiyeh." They discuss "the semiotics of preppy clothes," at length, in last week's New Yorker.
And now, they bring us Contra—not just way, way better, but also busier, fancier, more expensive, and greatly expanded in scope, weaponry, geography. A publicist-supplied track-by-track breakdown drops a host of new genres (dancehall, baile funk, Bollywood, prog) and inspirational artists (Buddy Holly, Lil Wayne, Kate Bush, Miami Sound Machine)—handy new references and comparison points to replace, y'know, the old ones. Reggaeton beats and harpsichords, classical flourishes and Auto-Tune. "Horchata" begins with Koening cooing one of the most maddeningly ornery album-opening lines in recent memory—"In December, drinking horchata/I'd look psychotic in a balaclava"—amid luxurious reverb and sweetly plinking thumb piano, a woozy reverie broken by an onslaught of concussive drums and chanting legato voices. It'd make a great theme song to Survivor: Upper West Side; it sounds more like a Very Best (or Konono No. 1) (or Deep Forest) remix than something the jovial clowns behind earlier, simpler three-car-garage jams like "A-Punk" or "Oxford Comma" whipped up on their own.
The nine tunes that follow are usually more recognizable, but not by much. "California English" reassuringly contrasts its frantic, galloping beat with Koenig's blithe chronicles of high-tax-bracket leisure ("ski in the Alps" rhymed with "sunburn his scalp," etc.), but now his joyful yelps have a T-Pain robo-sheen, and he's just as apt to reel off a few lines of appealingly evocative nonsense: "Sweet carob rice cakes/You don't care how the sweets taste/Fake Philly cheesesteak/But you use real toothpaste." He's disinclined to say anything too emotionally direct, though he comes awful close amid the sweet, calm, minimal hum of "Taxi Cab," double bass and candlelight-dinner strings and prim piano-recital arpeggios swirling about as he intones, "You're not a victim/But neither am I/Nostalgic for garbage/Desperate for time." The switch from piano to harpsichord feels poignant, somehow.
It's also possible, of course, to drop the ethnomusicology and class-warfare chatter altogether, the better to regard these instead as pure, untroubled, tremendously likable pop songs: to marinate in the elegant, soothing, slowly unwinding chorus of "Giving Up the Gun" or thrill to the fantastic double-time polka mania of "Cousins," which jams Squeeze's entire catalog into a couple breathless, nonsensical minutes and concludes with what sounds like a thrash-punk band struggling to be heard over an avalanche of church bells. But then again, there's also the mini-epic "Diplomat's Son," which straight-up samples M.I.A., an epochal-feeling act of political subversion, a bunch of dudes oversimplified as Polo-draped tourists hijacking a scatting breakbeat from a woman oversimplified as a righteous firebrand freedom-fighter, all in service of an ambitious (more strings, more piano, more drum-circle loops, more warbling voices) ambassadorial rewrite of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
True, all of this can occasionally remind you of that motormouth travelogue montage in The Rules of Attraction, various countries and landmarks and cultures crassly reduced to mere backdrop for standard-issue sordid collegiate antics. Except there's nothing even remotely sordid about Vampire Weekend, a buttoned-up enterprise in multiple senses, appropriating like mad but doing so openly, politely, and, most of all, expertly. We conclude with "I Think U R A Contra," another dreamy, minimal ballad, those frantic guitars now playing softly at the margins, that piano now low-voiced and underwater-sounding, Koenig now offering his version of a lovelorn serenade: "You wanted good schools/And friends with pools/You're not a contra." He does not sound surprised, or disappointed. Neither should you.
Vampire Weekend play United Palace Theater January 17, Webster Hall January 18, and Bowery Ballroom January 19
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