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Contra’ Takes On West Coast Aesthetic

Alex Kilpatrick | Monday, January 18, 2010

Vampire Weekend’s 2008 self-titled debut came as quite a surprise, with four Columbia University grads with a clean Afro-pop-influenced indie rock sound making it big in the mainstream. It was definitely college rock at its finest, something one might be inclined to listen to at Cape Cod with a glass of champagne in hand and a chandelier in view somewhere in the background. But somehow, the mainstream caught on, and it became a favorite in dorm rooms, TV commercials and Top 40 radio stations alike. The indie rock quartet did it with style, originality and hints of ennui.
But they were anything but apathetic, as their songs all had a clear sense of energy and incorporated cleverness and Afro-pop with lyrics about collegiate struggles and trust funds. The debut album even made NME’s “Top 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade” list, ranking as no. 42. And now, they’ve done it again with their sophomore effort, “Contra,” an album that brings the creativity up a notch with a fuller, more frenetic sound and more mixing of genres from synth pop to hip-hop to reggae and even electronic accents. The indie rock band also seems to move away from their Northeast roots and takes on a West Coast aesthetic for the new album.
It begins with “Horchata,” a song with excellent African beats and the clever yet silly lyrics, “In December drinking horchata / I’d look psychotic in a balaclava.”  “White Sky” then demonstrates lead singer Ezra Koenig’s clear ability to reach a high-pitched falsetto and portrays the band’s mixture of genres with a good use of instrumentation.
“Holiday” has a summery California feel, and if you need a break from the bleak South Bend winter cold, just give this song a listen. “Holiday” has hints of an orchestral sound reminiscent of Grizzly Bear, while “California English” is more fast-paced and frenetic, much like the nonsensical chaos of “Oxford Comma” but to an even greater degree, with lyrics, “Sweet carob rice cake / She don’t care how the sweets taste / Fake Philly cheese steak / But she use real toothpaste,” which beg the question, Vampire Weekend, what are you talking about?
“Taxi Cab” is more slow-paced with a classical sounding piano instrumentation that makes the song sound like it could be a soundtrack to Masterpiece Theatre. Koenig’s trebling falsetto is heard throughout the electronic-influenced “Run,” but it is the African-inflected synth that truly carries the frantic song.
“Cousins,” the leading single off the album, is repetitive and uses many of the same guitar riffs as M79 off their first album, but the catchy chorus, new surf-influenced riffs and bells make the single interesting. “Giving Up the Gun” is also strong on the bells with a synthy arena rock sound, but the lyrics are not quite as original as we would expect from Vampire Weekend on the chorus, “And though it’s been a long time / You’re right back where you started from.”
A personal favorite, “Diplomat’s Son” brings in the trebling violins and high-pitched back-up vocals. It’s much more mellow than the rest of the album and seems like a cool mix between classic rock and an M.I.A. single, as it includes sample from the controversial rapper. “I Think Ur a Contra” takes it from mellow to more mellow with a quiet orchestral sound and shows that Vampire Weekend has soul as well as genius with the emotional lyrics, “You wanted good schools and friends with pools / … / But I just wanted you.”
Overall, “Contra” proves that Vampire Weekend can succeed even when they move away from their Ivy League schooling and Northeast roots. The album certainly takes on a West Coast aesthetic but also has undertones of reggae, electronic, and Afro-pop. Whether the mainstream will catch onto this sophomore masterpiece is yet to be seen.