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Album review: Vampire Weekend - 'Contra' (XL)

Moving on, with old charms still remaining

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8 / 10 Lord knows they have their detractors, but whatever you might think of them, the simple fact is Vampire Weekend are now one of the most unique bands on the planet. Two years on from their eponymous debut album and their much talked-about oeuvre – the African influences, the preppy stylings, the songs about punctuation – is no longer eyebrow-raising, yet remains uncopied. Few bands have tried to appropriate what they do, because it is difficult, if not impossible. This is advantageous. It means they can leave a gap of almost exactly two years between albums – save for supplying the beautifully baroque (yet still-recognisably-VW) ‘Ottoman’ to a film soundtrack last year, and of a course making a couple of dozen fields’ worth of people all scream “BLAKE’S… GOT A NEW FACE!” in unison – and still sound fresh.

Further good news: on the evidence of ‘Contra’, the band’s efforts in their tiny Brooklyn studio since have seen the four broaden their horizons even further. The first taste of the new Vampire Weekend – save for the viral ads and cryptic website stared out from by the mystery blonde who adorns the cover – was free download ‘Horchata’. Named after a hangover-curing Mexican rice drink and boasting a rumbling, drum-pounding choral refrain The Lion King would be rightly proud of – plus an impressive contribution from Thom Yorke’s marimba player Mauro Refosco – the album’s opening track is a statement of intent from keyboard player and producer Rostam Batmanglij. Not everything on ‘Contra’ is as head-swirling or elaborate as this, but it defines the deeply ambitious thread that runs through the record. Instead of shipping knob-twiddling duties out to a stranger, the band take a lead from hip-hop, merging production with songwriting. Witness ‘White Sky’: perhaps the best demonstration of how texture has joined charm and wit in the band’s arsenal. Written so precociously early that it was actually debuted live at the first album’s launch party, on ‘Contra’ it’s completely reborn. Instead of the harpsichords and synth-strings of its earlier incarnation, here it’s reconstructed by Chris Tomson’s crunching drums and circuit board bleeps (the band have acknowledged the influence of the late-’80s video game Contra), adding new depths to its spiralling scales.

Lyrically, too, you can feel frontman Ezra Koenig’s confidence growing. Whereas ‘M79’ took a bus into New York, ‘White Sky’ finds its narrator proudly strolling amongst Manhattan’s skyscrapers, daring to imagine the lives – and laundry – behind its most exclusive addresses. ‘Holiday’ similarly begins life as a ska thrash in the mould of The Specials’ ‘Too Much Too Young’ with nothing more on its mind than hitting the beach before a submerged bed of drums sends it skipping to the sands of Iraq, the invasion and probably the only reference ever on record of the font Futura.

Yet while ‘California English’ impressively crams hundred-mile-an-hour tongue-twisting (complete with some Auto-Tune action borrowed from Rostam’s side project Discovery) into barely two minutes, Vampire Weekend take care not to flash their new toys for the sake of it. ‘Taxi Cab’ takes the foot off the gas as a menacing ballad with heartbeat-bass and shadowy strings, invoking both New York’s grandeur and danger with Lou Reed-like subtlety; while ‘Giving Up The Gun’ moulds a swelling house head-rush with a charming C86-esque tune to produce an anthemic yet deeply personal mix of fist-pumping euphoria and delicate empathy.

The band’s longest-ever song, ‘Diplomat’s Son’, mixes dancehall reggae, Tetris bleeps and MIA’s vocals (hypnotically sampled from ‘Kala’’s ‘Hussel’), all of which beautifully underscores a sprawling narrative of love and double-crossing, played out against the backdrop of the US’ similarly convoluted overtures towards Nicaragua’s Contra rebels back in the early ’80s. ‘I Think UR A Contra’ wraps things up with a hymnal warning about the dangers of needlessly stirring up raw emotions.

It’s fair to say that with so much going on ‘Contra’ is much less immediate than its predecessor, requiring a bit of patience to uncover its true shades, contours and charm. But it’s certainly worth sticking with, because with their second album Vampire Weekend have escaped their collegiate niche without sacrificing their true essence. Two more years, and they can do it all over again. No problem.

Paul Stokes

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