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Vampire Weekend
Contra Darren Lee , January 13th, 2010 06:48

Class war: it's all the rage in 2010. Bad news for Vampire Weekend, whose Ivy League preppy shtick has already been the subject of much sniffy derision from their chorus of detractors. But while accusations of elitism and moneyed indulgence may appear more pertinent in this era of austerity and "them and us" tribalism, such fatuous griping fails to hold up to much close scrutiny. It also ignores the fact that much of their debut album's charm stemmed from this surreal sense of affected otherness, and the bands' ability to convincingly create a world entirely of their own: one of Gatsby-esque protagonists, anachronistic grammar and leisurely neo-colonial joie de vivre.

And then there's the music: that "Upper West Side Soweto" soundbite might have been intended as tongue-in-cheek, but Ezra Koenig and co clearly weren't afraid to ruffle a few feathers amongst their critics, flirting with the musically unfashionable to a degree unprecedented for such a feted band. Afrobeat? Ersatz Paul Simon? White reggae? It shouldn't have worked at all, but somehow their eponymous debut captured the spirit of the summer of 2008 perfectly.

The downside of releasing a record as idiosyncratic and brazenly one-off is, of course, the difficulty of following it up. And, by the high standards set, Contra has to be deemed a slight failure. Which is not to say it's a bad record: just that, while its predecessor arrived wrapped in exuberant novelty, even the best tracks on this sophomore effort sound a little, well, over-familiar. The opening run of songs are characterized by a lightness of touch and wide-eyed melodic gracefulness: 'Horchata' harnesses a gentle calypso rhythm to evoke a warm Proustian reverie ("here comes a feeling you thought you'd forgotten, chairs to sit and sideways to walk on"); 'White Sky' is a multi-textured delight, a stirring homage to the Manhattan skyline as musically intricate as anything on their debut. Less impressive is 'Holiday', a relatively orthodox ska-pop workout which attempts to re-capture the breezy vitality of their signature tune 'A-Punk', but without the customary élan.

By the arrival of 'California English' it's already becoming apparent that Contra is not the radical leap forward that some might have been hoping for, the sole evolution from the 2008 template being a liberal deployment of the ubiquitous Auto-Tune on Koenig's vocals. But the stately baroque elegance of 'Taxi Cab' and bleep-aided, sashaying majesty of 'Run' capture the New Yorkers playing to their strengths, that mischievous sense of eclectic playfulness coupled with a instinctive grasp for melody.

'Cousins' is a curious choice of lead single, representing something of a red herring with its blistering staccato rhythm and agitated vocal urgency. It's defiantly uncommercial by Vampire Weekend's standards, and ushers in the album's weakest section: the stodgy AM rock of 'Giving Up The Gun' and ropey cod-reggae of 'Diplomat's Son' (the latter only partly redeemed by Koenig's rather incongruous Morrissey impression). Such lapses are swiftly forgotten with eye-watering closer 'I Think UR a Contra', a sparse acoustic ballad which is perhaps the band's most straightforwardly affecting moment to date.

Maybe Contra will in time come to be seen as a consolidation album - expanding on lyrical and musical themes whilst sowing the seeds of some intriguing new directions. Fans of Koenig's exotic way with a metaphor will swoon to his elliptical rhapsodies to Mexican beverages and Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries, while disbelievers will continue to shrug their shoulders and wonder quite what all the fuss is about. Not exactly a game-changer, then, and one suspects the New Yorkers have fudged rather then definitively solved the "stick or twist?" second album conundrum, but when the music is as guilelessly joyous as it is on this album's finest moments, it seems churlish to complain.

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