Review Summary: An album that smartly avoids the urge to reinvent the wheel.
Music fans have some really fuc
ked-up ideas about what constitutes 'reality'. Take the case of Mobb Deep; a band who made an album (1995's The Infamous
) that is routinely praised as one of the best ever in its genre for its gritty depiction of the realities of living on the mean streets of New York. Great; except for the fact that Prodigy and Havoc are probably two of the most middle-class people in hip-hop. They met in a public art school - the same one Tony Bennett and Calvin Klein went to! - which Prodigy attended after taking lessons at the dance school his grandmother ran. The only way either of these guys would have seen a crack pipe is if they deliberately sought one out - and why would they do that? Research?
And yet, here's Vampire Weekend. Like Mobb Deep, they met at an art school in New York - and that's where the similarities end, because Vampire Weekend actually sing about stuff they know
. Why shouldn't a guy who once taught English write a song about an Oxford comma? Why shouldn't some guys who clearly appreciate the likes of Slinger Francisco and Fela Kuti, and enjoy albums like Rhythm of the Saints
, take a little bit of inspiration from them? Why can't a band who like football enough to wear Chivas shirts in their videos name a song after an Arsenal player? Apparently there's something wrong with all that, though, because ever since they arrived in mainstream consciousness, Vampire Weekend have constantly had to court accusations of being 'pretentious' and 'fake'. That's pretty messed up, guys. I mean, when quizzed about the meaning of the word 'contra' and how it applied to this album, rather than claiming any sort of political meaning, they outright admitted that they thought it was a cool word, and they liked the arcade game. Are you seriously gonna act like you'd rather go drinking with Animal Collective than these guys?
I guess they're just victims of the internet age. Anybody old enough to remember the heady days of 1996 will remember a little Scottish band who were just as humble, just as literate, just as intelligent, and just as up-front and real about singing songs about the art school life they knew. They were taken to the bosom of their homeland so much that they won a fan-voted Brit award a couple of years later, beating the alarmingly successful Steps. Had Vampire Weekend
been released alongside Tigermilk
and If You're Feeling Sinister
, would anybody even need this lecture?
And yet, probably just because people enjoy hating on anything Pitchfork like, Vampire Weekend are the enemy of the tastemakers. So prepare to be SHOCKED! that a band who name-dropped Lil' John on their last album are now using autotune ("California English"). Prepare to be ASTOUNDED! as songs about punctuation are followed by songs about Spanish drinks ("Horchata"). Brace yourself for HORROR! as the Baroque arrangements of tracks like "M79" reappear ("I Think Ur A Contra"). This is a Vampire Weekend album. Terrible, isn't it?
"Taxi Cab" is the instant stand-out, a gloriously gentle ballad that sounds so innocent and warm you'd give it a cuddle if you could - and "Giving Up the Gun" is not far behind. On that track, the gentle introduction of synths that runs throughout much of Contra
comes to the forefront, resulting in a politely glitchy track that doesn't sit too far away from Iceland's múm in the sonic spectrum, but boasts the kind of melody you'd expect to hear on one of Jimmy Eat World's better songs. Yet once the album has been digested as a whole, it reveals itself to be a more gentle, mature take on all the same influences and sounds that characterized their debut. That, if anything, is the most impressive and remarkable thing about Contra
- it's such a smooth, natural transition from where they were to where they are now. This is a much, much more consistent album, it's got nothing as immediate as "Mansard Roof" or "A-Punk", and it moves a little toward the pop end of their sound, but other than that it's business as usual. Any of "Horchata", "White Sky", "Holiday", or "Cousins" could have slipped easily onto Vampire Weekend
, and if any of them had appeared on the second half of that album, they'd have improved it, too.
If you liked Vampire Weekend
, you will like Contra
. It really is that simple.