Vampire Weekend’s ‘Contra’: A Triumph Of Fine Tuned Complacency


As of last week, Vampire Weekend released their follow up to 2008’s self-titled greatest hit. If you’re like me, you picked up the new “disc” just last week on the release date but most of the Western world have been listening to leaked tracks from it since at least a month after their first album was released. In the indie world, Vampire Weekend is as hyped as they come. For a band that has managed to garner a serious following in a few short years, their songs are often characteristically uncomplex; exercises in capturing the spirit of a Woody Allen film from the 1970s, a time when none of the members were born yet. If you can believe it, there was a time a few years ago when Vampire Weekend was nothing more than a whisper of Columbia University English majors, buzzing with an excitement not felt since word spread about whatever bullshit band came before them. But now, the band can boast several tours and two full length releases in the last three years. None can doubt their formidable presence in the collective consciousness of college frat bros and Brooklyn hipsters alike.

With Contra, Vampire Weekend has done the unthinkable: they made a sophomore album with only a tinge of sophomoric-ness. I would have said it was complete devoid of all sophomore release clichés until “Run” came on, horns a blaring. But the beauty of the band and their songs can be found in the drastically understated choice of album art this time around (see picture, right, click for bigger image). To me, this image captures the essence of the band and the album in many ways. The girl, young and beautiful, seen here in a moment of half-surprise. Her half-popped, yellow Polo an example of restrained high-class culture and leisure. The mildly bemused expression on her face seems to suggest a passive relationship with the rest of the world in love with her. This is Vampire Weekend: young, talented, brimming with irony and offering a whimsical music catalog to the world with a casual sense of self-awareness but not without an air of arrogance.

The first thing a well-versed listener to Contra will react to is the inherent influence of Paul Simon, most specifically Graceland-era Simon. Is it possible that the members of the band have never been acquainted with such an enduring, unique piece of pop music as Graceland? I’d say, not possible at all, considering the band’s proper Gotham upbringing and attempts to describe themselves as “Upper West Side Soweto” (allmusic). At times, one could swear they were in fact, listening to Paul Simon (see: “White Sky” or bonus track “Giant”). The question is whether the group’s songwriters deliberately emulated Simon (as was the case with The Killer’s sophomore release Sam’s Town being directly influenced by Bruce Springsteen) or if they just happened to unearth these songs as a result of their writing process this time around. For me, the question is relatively unimportant: the songs deliver a delightfully happy, finger-tapping experience through and through. I can hear the words “I like music that I don’t have to think about” being uttered around sorority houses across the country as we speak.

Now that V.W. have gotten past the hype monster imposing on the honesty of their labors, it seems the only direction for the band to go is up. Too often bands cave under the pressures of a self-appointed delegation of prematurely judgmental media outlets and fans (read as: Pitchfork and people who wear Polos and skinny jeans to She & Him shows). I find the fact that they have produced an album that rewards casual listeners and fans alike, is the most impressive feat this time around. They didn’t need to reinvent the wheel to stay on top of their game and keep booking major festivals and they certainly didn’t pretend to know how to do it any other way.

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3 Responses to “Vampire Weekend’s ‘Contra’: A Triumph Of Fine Tuned Complacency”

  1. Henning Says:

    Great review, Steve. I wasn’t sold on a first listen. Besides having heard at least two of the songs for almost a year, the album just felt like B-sides to their 2008 debut — pleasant enough, but completely forgettable. And a few of the tracks are. But some of Contra‘s later songs, like “Diplomat’s Son,” really go to new territory and demonstrate some level of growth. I don’t pretend to know music or to be able to assess it with any critical credibility, but I know what I like. AND I LIKE VAMPIRE WEEKEND.

    (Also, Columbia alums can’t NOT like the band. It’s written into our diplomas.)

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