This review is by new contributing writer Ethan Ogilby, whose musical taste is way more hip than mine.—PCN
The second album usually determines the staying power of an artist. It must be faithful to the established sound as well as explore new ground, be both familiar and more substantial than just The Debut Album: Part Two. As such, after the firestorm of admiration around Vampire Weekend’s eponymous LP and the anticipation and hype that surround Contra, the question remained: Were they in it for the long haul, or would they burn out like so many former next big things?
The answer: Vampire Weekend is here to stay…probably.
Contra is definitely a good album (and may end up as one of my favorites when this year is over) but I don’t feel it quite captures the simple genius or fun of their first record. The “indie Graceland” aesthetic—one of the elements that endeared me most to Vampire Weekend—is not as prevalent this time around.
But Contra has subtlety, thought, and purpose behind the music. Frontman/guitarist Ezra Koenig is at his best when his voice doesn’t have to work too hard. His melodies are so natural you feel like you’ve been listening to his songs for years, prime examples being “I Think UR a Contra,” a quiet, elegant tale of falling out of love; and “Diplomat’s Son,” a multifaceted yet graceful journey through an aristocratic adolescent romance (and one of the songs that best fulfills the new-but-faithful requirement).
The instrumental arrangements and rhythmic interweavings are even more advanced and challenging this time around. From song to song and section to section, new instruments and lines drop in and out, sometimes sacrificing continuity, but also creating remarkable moments, such as the cascading faux-horn lines of “Run” and the layered, yelping choruses of “White Sky” (though I would have preferred the yelps being swapped for something more pleasant).
And yet, Contra feels more produced than the debut, which compromises the balance of the band’s sound. The Vampire Weekend LP was something I’d really never heard before, that rare feel-good indie “rock” record that wasn’t hokey. You could put it on and let it play right through—in a bar, at a party, hanging out in a basement—and people would want to know what it was whether they liked it or not.
Contra, on the other hand, sounds more like everything else. There are electronic drums and uncommon percussion and even some vocal effects, but it’s hard to find where any of this makes their music better. “Giving Up the Gun,” while a different sound for the band, doesn’t chart any new territory. Its pulsing, electronic background and vocal harmonies remind me more of a Postal Service song than my favorite musical Columbia literati. Similarly, their effortless, melodic sensibility—ubiquitous on the first album—is on occasion disappointingly replaced by frantic disjointedness, sections of “California English” and “Cousins” being the worst offenders.
Vampire Weekend’s guitarist-keyboardist, Rostam Batmanglij, told Rolling Stone, “Our first record kind of has one vibe, one tone. [Contra] goes in a thousand places at once.” To dismiss the debut as “one vibe, one tone” is underselling the distinction between the songs and belittling the cohesion and flow of the previous album. This quote does sum up, however, both what’s great and not so great about Contra: too many twists and alterations crammed into one record, but with enough detail and emotion to keep me coming back for years.