Saturday, January 30, 2010

Vampire Weekend Album Review: Contra

This is belated, but I have wanted to review this album ever since I got what my dad would refer to as my "grubby little hands" on it. I liked their first album, and although I did find the lyrics pretentious, (because in many cases they were pretentious,) I figured you have to let four Columbia guys write what they know. And from what I've heard from Brandon Cole I think Columbia knows some pretension.

Vampire Weekend is still writing what they know. But what makes Contra lyrically superior to their eponymous debut album, is that now they know what its like to be scorned for being pretentious. Contra is a contra, a rebuttal, a counterargument against the criticism that their first album received. And luckily, for anyone who likes them, they haven't abandoned their sound or the tone of the lyrics. Instead the lyrics are actually more substantive.

You can see the lead single, "Horchata" as being a prelude to the counterargument. It sounds a lot like any of the cuts on the first album, and its harmless and beachy, and yes a bit pretentious. But the key here, is that Contra is going to be more Room on Fire than First Impressions of Earth. The band isn't abandoning their sound.

The second song and second single "Cousins" is not quite as clear in its intent. However it is clear that "you" the song is addressed to is an anonymous blogger, as he is a "greatest hits list maker" and "was born with ten fingers and is gonna use them all" probably to insult vampire weekend. The mood of the song, while not particularly edgy, is more upbeat and drum heavy than most VW songs, which matches the muted anger towards the song's target. The cousins line is not entirely clear although on my blog you have to allow me to some moments of complete speculation, and I think it's saying that the bloggers are extremely similar to the members of Vampire Weekend, in effect, their cousins, so to paraphrase, STFU already insulting us when you're the same as us.

The third track, California English, is similar to Horchata in that it sounds like the same ol' Vampire Weekend, complete with references to Hapa Club, Skiing in the Alps, and Hair Gel. But it's bouncy and fun, and Ezra Koenig sings the lyrics pleasantly and speedily. Also, this track, just like the other two, is short, which makes its buoyant mood easy to bear. I wish I weren't listening to this album in the dead of winter, but Australia looms in two weeks, so I figure I'll listen to it properly there.

"Diplomat's son" is similar to California English in tone and feel, but catchier, and the story about the seduction of a diplomat's son (obvious) is more interesting than most VW lyrics. It took me a while to figure out that Koenig was singing IT was 81, as opposed to HE was 81. Confusing for a bit.

"Giving up the Gun" is my second favorite song on the entire album. It's catchy, it's interesting to hear young people writing about not being young anymore and the obviously Freudian sword/gun metaphor just makes the whole thing a pretty funny surprise. If all the songs were about this, the band would be indulging themselves in writing about things they know nothing about. But with this song, it just works.

"Holiday" is the worst song on the album, (and unfortunately I still like it). Its oppressively upbeat, and sounds like something you'd sing to a preschool class on a morning when it wasn't actually a holiday. Cheesy, ridiculous, and yet, I still kind of like it.

"I Think You're a Contra" is another song that's not particularly great. It's a slow burner and that makes you want to sit back and really listen to the lyrics, but they're cryptic, and bit annoying. The lyrics address an unknown, and question whether that unknown (who I always imagine to be a girl) is a contra or not. Two important sets of lines seem to hint at what the song's about. The first is: "You wanted good schools/ and friends with pools/ you're not a contra/ you wanted rock n roll/complete control/well I don't know." The point of this seems to be that a contra is someone who wants things that don't add up into a consistent persona. It would make sense for someone who wanted good schools to also want some friends with some g*ddam* pools. But NO ONE could want rock n roll and complete control. The second set: "Never pick sides/ never choose between two/ but I just wanted you" pretty much means, I love you despite your inconsistencies. And Vampire Weekend, possibly addressing that omnipresent blogger/hater in the back of their minds just want to be loved.

"Run" is Holiday done right. Also an answer to "Summertime Clothes." If I were the type to dance around or run around in meadows, those two songs would be on repeat all the time.

Taxi Cab is another song that's about the similarities between "you" and the band. But instead of being aggressive like "Cousins" this one is more confused. The most telling lyrics: "In the shadow of your first attack/ I was questioning and looking back/ you said baby we don't speak of that/ like a real aristocrat." If the you is still the blogger, or a disillusioned fan, this aggrieved response makes sense; Vampire Weekend was a hugely hyped band, which met with the inevitable backlash that hugely hyped bands always meet with, and they just don't get it. The music is subdued and pretty, and the song serves perfectly as the slower counterpart to "Cousins."

My favorite song, "White Sky" is not complicated and I haven't thought about the lyrics at all and don't really need or want to. This song is just joyous, and summery and encapsulates what I like about the band while leaving out what I dislike. It reminds me of my favorite thing they've ever done, which wasn't actually them but a reworking of one of their songs done by Esau Mwamwaya:

The sound of this album is remarkably similar to Vampire Weekend, which for fans is just about perfect. And if you were offended by the lyrics of the debut, these lyrics definitely refer to your concerns, and are probably more addressed to you than they are to me. So at least listen to them before you decide to be a contra.

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