Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Vampire Weekend – Contra

There’s been plenty of pre-release hype, viral and otherwise. You’ve known the tracklist and backstory for a while. And after hearing “Horchata,” “California English” (in two parts), “Cousins,” and the old-timer “White Sky,” you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking Vampire Weekend are giving you more of the same on their California-inspired second album. That’s true in some regards. They’re clearly confident in their aesthetically preppy lyrical themes (Note: A Richard Serra reference in “White Sky” also ties them to Sunn O))), though VW were first, for what its worth). It’s also true these 10 new tracks aren’t always as immediately catchy as what they offered on their self-titled debut and/or the CD-R that came before it. Once you start really taking the tracks apart, they start opening up in the hook department and it becomes clear they’ve gone deeper with the production, and emotion. They’ve also taken a couple late-album chances via songs that sound less band-like and more like bedroom recordings (think Beirut vs Realpeople, for instance).

It would have been interesting if Ezra had worked some of his knowledge/love of punk and hardcore (a la his first Fucked Up moment) into the mix. The song notes provided by the band/label as background mention “Holiday” was inspired by “third wave-ska bands like Operation Ivy” (and VW’s own “exploration of new guitar tones and rhythms”), but you won’t mistake Koenig for Jesse Michaels or Tim Armstrong even if he says, lyrically, he’s referencing a family member who gave up meat after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The ideas behind the collection are ambitious. In those same notes, Rostam Batmanglij explains “one of the goals for this record was to use vocals as a texture, as an instrument.” You get that. There are more textures in general: echoing beats, mellow keyboards, cello — and that’s all just in “Taxi Cab.” Rostam’s growth as a producer pairs with an emotional maturity in the lyrics; on songs like “Taxi” and “I Think UR A Contra,” Vampire Weekend are not trying to break your heart, but they are working with what’s in there. Ezra’s still singing about what he knows — what he knows are the scenes and schemes of the somewhat upper-crust — and now those scenes come with more of a melodramatic subtext (“You wanted good schools and friends with pools” he tells someone that’s leaving in “Contra”) and painterly detail (“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” he recalls more sentimentally than he cares to admit in “Taxi Cab”). As far as inspiration/starting points/points of departure, they (and/or their label) mention Bollywood and Buddy Holly (“Horchata”), Lil Wayne’s syllabic density (“California English”), Joe Strummer (as inspiration for the lyrical content of “Taxi Cab”), Miami Sound Machine (the rock ‘n’ reggaeton of “Run”), Kate Bush (“I Think Ur A Contra”), etc. “Diplomat’s Son” samples M.I.A.’s “Hussel” and brings the Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” into the mix. In-the-room guests include Nat Baldwin playing upright bass on “Taxi Cab” and Mauro Refosco does marimbas, rebolo, zabumba.

About that auto-tune in “California English”? Ezra tells the haters, no, “it doesn’t sound like T-Pain … there’s plenty of amazing music from around the world using AutoTune besides American pop.” True, though sometimes the backdrops sound a bit Disney taking on Africa via “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” In that realm, VW continue finding ways to turn a number of non-American inspirations into very American pop music. Which is maybe what’s so satisfying about the weirder compositional details you find in the six-minute stringed and progged and kitchen-sinked “Diplomat’s Son” and closer “I Think UR A Contra,” a somberly romantic ballad and first VW song with acoustic guitar, we’re told.

In the end, Contra’s a satisfying listen. It’s not mind-blowing. Neither was the first album. It’s not what they do. But hey, it’s not as easy as it looks making consistently charming songs, songs that will cut across critical and popular boundaries and likely earn the band even more fans in 2010.

Contra is out 1/12 via XL. You can stream it now at MySpace. This one travels:

Vampire Weekend – “Horchata” (MP3)

This remix of “Cousins” by Toy Selectah brings out some of the song’s newer textures.

Vampire Weekend – “Cousinz (Toy Selectah Mex-More Remix)” (MP3)
(Via Pinglewood)

You’ll also spot the new details live:

01/12 – Los Angeles, CA – Henry Fonda Theater
01/17 – New York, NY @ United Palace Theater
01/18 – New York, NY @ Webster Hall
01/19 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
02/05 – Bexhill, UK @ De La Warr
02/07 – Cambridge, UK @ Corn Exchange
02/08 – Manchester, UK @ Manchester Apollo
02/09 – Leeds, UK @ O2 Academy
02/10 – Birmingham, UK @ O2 Academy
02/12 – Newcastle, UK @ O2 Academy
02/13 – Glasgow, UK @ Barrowlands
02/14 – Edinburgh, UK @ Picture House
02/16 – London, UK @ O2 Academy
02/17 – London, UK @ O2 Academy
02/19 – Berlin, DE @ Astra
02/20 – Cologne, DE @ Gloria
02/21 – Hamburg, DE @ Uebel
02/22 – Brussels, BE @ AB
02/24 – Amsterdam, NL @ Paradiso
02/25 – Paris, FR @ Olympia
02/26 – Tolouse, FR @ Le Bikini
02/27 – Barcelona, ES @ Penelope
02/28 – Madrid, ES @ Teatro Circo Price
03/14 – Edmonton, AB @ Edmonton Event Centre
03/15 – Calgary, AB @ MacEwan Hall
03/16 – Missoula, MT @ Wilma Theatre
03/18 – Salt Lake City, UT @ In The Venue
03/19 – Denvero, CO @ Ogden Theatre
03/20 – Aspen, CO @ Spring Jam Core Party
03/22 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
03/23 – Milwaukee, WI @ Riverside Theatre
03/25 – Chicago, IL @ Riviera Theatre
03/27 – Knoxville, TN @ Tennessee Theatre
03/29 – Columbus, OH @ Lifestyle Communities Pavilion
03/30 – Toronto, ON @ Sound Academy
04/01 – Boston, MA @ Orpheum Theatre
04/02 – Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
04/03 – Washington, DC @ Dar Constitution Hall
04/05 – Nashville, TN @ Ryman Auditorium
04/06 – Asheville, NC @ Orange Peel
04/08 – Atlanta, GA @ The Tabernacle
04/09 – New Orleans, LA @ House of Blues
04/10 – Austin, TX @ Stubb’s
04/11 – Dallas, TX @ House of Blues
04/13 – Tempe, AZ @ Marquee Theatre
04/14 – Pomona, CA @ Fox Theater
04/19 – Oakland, CA @ Oakland Theater