2010 / Music

Review: Vampire Weekend’s ‘Contra’ Dripping With Ambition

New York-Based Quartet Follow Up Breakthrough Debut

Let’s make one thing very clear. The members of Vampire Weekend are a bunch of musical phonies.

Photo: XL Recordings

Photo: XL Recordings

After all, if your measure of a musician is for them to have the correct ethnic or cultural background for their music, these lads fail the loyalty test. The New York-based quartet consists of four white guys playing a brand of indie-rock pop overcharged with rhythms, sounds and cadences borrowed from non-Western sources (Africa, the Caribbean). Clearly, this isn’t music they picked up as part of their cultural lineage. This was music consciously selected, borrowed from far off lands and made an important part of this group’s power-pop formula. But with an album as excellent as the group’s 2008 self-titled debut, who really cares about such silly notions of authenticity?

The answer is the members of Vampire Weekend. As proof, listen to the band’s new disc, “Contra,” which consists of a dozen songs that are a defensive reaction to the criticism heaped on the band since “Vampire Weekend” lit up the blogosphere. Stung by the griping, the new tracks reframe the players as closeted art-rockers and attempts to blunt the skeptics’ postings by demonstrating the musicians’ artistic bonafides. They’re not pop-music carpetbaggers, they’re pastiche innovators. Oddly enough, “Contra” is less impressive than its predecessor because it sounds so inauthentic.

That the Vampire Weekend guys would feel sensitive about the issue is understandable. For all of the buzz and robust sales that have trailed Vampire Weekend in the last two years, the band has been the subject of a concerted campaign of petty snipping. No New York band since fellow elite spawn the Strokes has inspired such a bitter debate about their creative merits. Like Julian Casablancas and his mod-ley crew, many haters suggested that Upper West Side scholastics like Vampire Weekend weren’t living the culture the music was born in. They were just poaching and then gentrifying world music. They corrupted indigenous music to add color to their pretty pop ditties.

Yet, this is a point losing relevance in the age of globalization. Such concepts as cultural authenticity, which once tainted Paul Simon’s African music expropriations for his classic “Graceland” album, now seem outdated. Have we forgotten that generations of Americans were schooled on American blues by foreign proponents like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards? Cultural exchange is the way of the world since the Phoenicians and yet, the members of Vampire Weekend are clearly feeling the guilt.

In comparative terms, “Contra,” is clearly a less tuneful and more experimental effort. It would be hard to imagine these songs would help the band assemble the kind of massive audience which greeted them at this summer’s Lollapalooza. Likewise, these kinds of tracks haven’t the charming Soweto pop pep that could coax an army of urban hipsters to let their inner hippie out and dance in the grassy field.

Vampire Weekend hasn’t abandoned the cross-cultural musical signatures like hyper basslines, clean guitar strums and Pan-African cadences, which the group injected into their songs. The cuts on “Contra” make it apparent that these cats aren’t dabblers. They’re true believers. Rather, the band has steered away from lashing these South African, dub and reggae influences to easy hooks so propulsive that they could have made klezmer music sound hip. Instead, the musicians are tuned into deconstructing the form, allowing New Wave synthesizers and electro-clash sounds to act as the vehicle instead of vibrant beats and flexing rhythms. These songs are interesting, but just simply aren’t as enjoyable.

Take “White Sky,” which teleports a rolling reggae melody into the Lady Gaga future where only cheap Casio keyboards and twerping guitar can make the percolating chirping notes. A sneaky bass crawls up and down the track to provide muscle as frontman Ezra Koenig tries to resist singing with a patois. Koenig, a former Ivy Leaguer and the group’s primary songwriter, once again positions himself as the voice of the young Hamptons crowd prowling Manhattan in search of big-city excitement. He caterwauls coyly, but there’s something dutiful about the complete picture that renders the track better than cute. “White Sky” is intriguing, but not much more.

Other tracks are just disappointing. “Cousins” is a manic ditty of Three Stooges-style ska that features plenty of “Pulp Fiction” guitar trilling, but no real substance beyond discombobulating rhythm. “California English” is just insufferably slight and not amusing. The stylistic masquerading strays a bit too close to parody as the band gives a muddled attempt to combine dutiful performed “Graceland” knockoff with a classical music string section breakdown. Gone is the sense of pampered school-boy goofiness and drunken lusty romance. Now, these guys just sound a little unsure of why the first album connected.

All hope isn’t lost on “Contra.” A few songs are less preoccupied with making a point than in being a fun listen. “Giving Up The Gun” has the album’s greatest sing-along refrain and is propelled by a thudding rhythm. Even better is “Run,” which is firmly rooted in the band’s new computer-rock aesthetic, but emerges from the digital blips as a 21st Century flamenco dance song. Cascading studio effects belch and oscillate, competing against human-made contributions. Drummer Chris Tomson brilliantly mans the record’s most complicated drum pattern while Koening’s rolling guitar strumming ushers listeners along. A gorgeous horn section flourishes completes the picture as the post-modern hybrid that most of the songs on “Contra” strive to be. The other tracks fall well short of the standard.

Song after song though, “Contra” suggests Vampire Weekend is either holding back or has lost the plot somewhere. They don’t seem to cognizant of how their music ticks. Or, maybe they’re deliberating thwarting it. The bandmates’ Columbia University degrees should tend toward the latter, suggesting that ambition is the folly of “Contra.” The members of Vampire Weekend can’t invent a new kind of worldbeat pop music if they forgo the pop elements.

From such an auspicious debut, “Contra” represents a ill-conceived reaction to the glow that followed “Vampire Weekend.” Whether through hubris or self-sabotage, the band went against its better judgment, rewiring their creations in a form that didn’t suit them. They hobbled these songs and ultimately, the group itself. They should have stayed true to their vision. It’s the only authenticity that matters.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2010 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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