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Vampire Weekend - Contra


by Mungo Adonis / 10.03.2010

Contra by name, contra by nature: young pop-smiths hurdle The Difficult Second Album(tm).

It’s easy for certain South Africans to hate Vampire Weekend. They’re trendy, bookish and pretentious. Oh, and they name-check Peter Gabriel instead of Oliver Mtukudzi.

This last bit is what gets South Africans backs up most: the temerity of young, privileged New Yorkers to appropriate African music in their indie-pop vibe without painstaking citation. But, jirre fok mense, criticising pop music for being cannibalistic is like straining umqombothi: well-intentioned but limp-wristed, besides the point and awfully fucking bourgeois.

For better or worse, Vampire Weekend abandon most of their most obvious check-points for their slightly less accessible second album.

They’re no Radiohead, of course, but Contra is as much of a Kid A as the preppy New-Yorkers could have dared to release.

Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut was widely lauded (and widely dismissed) for being frothy, exuberant and unabashedly poppy. Their follow-up needed to transcend the cutesy Afro-pop and Ivy-league lyrical imagery if the band hoped to be seen as anything other than a novelty act. That it achieves this and sets them up for even bigger future triumphs is just about enough to qualify Contra as a success.

The Afro-pop slavery, deliriously catchy choruses and call-and-response yelps are absent for most of the disc’s running time to be replaced with blippety-bleep electronic effects, bizarre tempos and Ezra Koenig’s recently discovered yodelling prowess.

The band has expanded its sonic palette to include dancehall, Bollywood, calypso, West African music, hip-hop and straight-up indie-rock. Anyone who’s listened to guitarist, keyboardist and band engine-room Rostam Batmanglij’s electro-pop side-project Discovery, can consider that LP a good primer for Contra.

Highlights are album opener Horchata, which probably comes closest to ‘old’ Vampire Weekend, and the propulsive, ambitious Giving Up the Gun.

There are so many ideas bursting out that it’s surprising that even half of them actually work. It takes a bit longer to get into than their debut but is probably more rewarding in the long run. The sense of unabashed fun from their debut is diluted by ambition and experimentation but it’s still a worthy next step.

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