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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Contra a step forward for Vampire Weekend

Thursday, January 7, 2010

(Photo)
Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig and Christopher Tomson of Vampire Weekend show growth with their second record Contra, out Tuesday on XL Recordings.
(Photo by SØREN SOLKAER STARBIRD)
As sophomore albums go, Vampire Weekend's Contra does what it should do -- touch on what made the debut good without treading water. Contra, set for release Jan. 12, build's nicely on 2008's smart, energetic debut Vampire Weekend.

Indeed, the new record is slightly better than the eponymous album.

On first listen, though, I noticed a lack of immediately catchy songs like "A-Punk," "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" and a handful of others from the first record. Only "Cousins," the obvious choice for lead single on Contra, fits this mold.

Is catchiness and immediacy everything? It shouldn't be.

Contra build's on the band's reputation with the same intelligent lyrics, diversity of influences and willingness to experiment.

The album's strongest trait may be its ability to surprise. For two minutes, "Taxi Cab" is built on synths, drums, strings and pianos. Just as the song reaches the two minute mark, you are hit with a flourish of harpsichord. It's not as if the instrument doesn't belong, it just seems to come from nowhere.

After about 30 seconds, it disappears as quickly as it came.

But harpsichord isn't the only unique texture we find on this album. "Run" features some very nice work from a horn section. Singer Ezra Koenig's voice is extremely distorted by Auto-Tune for "California English." My personal favorite is the African thumb piano used on "Horchata," the opener.

The African influence on songs like "Horchata" have been noted on both albums and drawn allusions -- both positive and negative -- to Paul Simon's Graceland. While I can see this, to go too far in the comparisons to Simon's record is to sell Vampire Weekend short. The fact that African influences aren't drawn upon too often in Western pop music doesn't automatically establish a relationship between two albums that do.

And if this foursome did draw on Simon as an influence? Good for them! They've taken it in a different direction.

My spin: B-

I have to admit; even after two albums I'm still wrapping my head around this band. They may be visionaries or this may be a passing fad. It's a fine line you walk when you bend convention.

Overall, though, I'm enjoying this record. The test will be this: am I still listening to it two months, six months, two years from now? I can't tell yet.

Special note should be made of the frenetic "Cousins," which the band was wise to make the first single off the album. It bears a strong resemblence to the debut album, and yet steps forward as well, featuring some of the best guitar work the band has done thus far. This is an especially interesting development, considering many of the songs on the album abandon guitar all together.

Other tracks of note include "Horchata," "Holiday," "Run," "Giving Up the Gun" and "Diplomat's Son."

Vampire Weekend

Contra

Vampire Weekend is: Ezra Koenig-lead vocals, guitar; Rostam Batmanglij-keyboards, guitar, backing vocals; Chris Thomson-drums, percussion; Chris Baio-bass, backing vocals

Producer: Rostam Bagmanglij

Learn more at: www.vampireweekend.com or www.xlrecordings.com



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