Vampire Weekend – Contra

Vampire Weekend - ContraVampire WeekendContra (XL)

If you were to ask me around the time that everyone was blowing themselves over the debut Vampire Weekend album what I thought about them, I would have eagerly chastised the notion of a few spoiled Ivy Leaguers who cited Graceland as a primary influence. Sure, the inspiration was novel for its time, but Graceland? Christ, I was in college around the time that Simon released that plagiarized “masterpiece” and I can cite no peers who offered, “Let me throw on that new Paul Simon album” during any social setting. You wanna know why? Because we were tired of hearing our Dads remind us that Chevy Chase is “hilarious” in the music video for “You Can Call Me Al.”

The notion that college kids are now listening to Graceland is a matter of concern, but the idea that they’re actively picking up world music instruments and creating music from them is even more troubling.

Fast forward to Vampire Weekend’s sophomore effort, Contra, which gets demerits right out of the gate for such an incredibly dumb album title given the band’s ilk, and I’m ready to consider that those original supporters may have seen something in this band that I carelessly overlooked.

You see, for one thing Contra is more Talking Heads‘ world beat now instead of Paul Simon, which means that Vampire Weekend has progressed into a band that’s a bit more aloof than the debut. There are hints that much of the bullshit Soweto connotations are gone, replaced by a weird Byrne/Eno slant where world beat polyrhythms are matched with geeky, grad student prose.

Contra also takes some of the explorations of Rostam Batmanglij’s Discovery side-project a step further; the auto-tuned “California English” works here because it’s housed in kinetic analog drums, clean guitars, and then an unexpected string quartet about 90 seconds in.

It gets better with repeated listens; the complexity of Vampire Weekend’s arrangements becomes apparent and it’s clear that they’ve obsessed over every measure. Vocalist Ezra Koenig sounds downright versatile as he alternates between electronic pop to reggaeton to dancehall to the awful bits of Top 40 radio that stuck with him from the ’90s.

Contra reminds us that not everyone coming of age in that era was enamored with grunge and not everyone had the best record collection either. Vampire Weekend has managed to grow from their past indiscretions, which is really all we should be asking from any band. Contra shows Vampire Weekend growing just enough that it turned a cynical critic into a late game supporter.

Video: Vampire Weekend – "Cousins"

MP3: Vampire Weekend – “Horchata”

Vampire Weekend: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, wiki


20 thoughts on “Vampire Weekend – Contra”

  1. “…it turned a cynical critic into a late game supporter.

    Say it ain’t so, Todd. Et tu, Totale? heh heh

    I had hoped “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” (from their debut) was a prophetic ditty about themselves. It’s obvious now that they were referring to those following the band.

    As a Brooklynite, I hate to say this but, what happened to the NY music scene backlash? Come back, Mooney Suzuki, all is forgiven. (Um, not quite.)

  2. Well shit, now I have to give this a listen. Jake and I were just discussing this album over IM and I again cited the onerous Paul Simon influence as reason for me not to listen. If you say that’s mostly washed out then I will have to give it a go.

    That said, I hate the Talking Heads only slightly less but at least the lineage is more respectful. Shallow, I know, but that’s me.

  3. I hear you, and I put this album towards the bottom of my review pile based entirely on my perception of the debut. I fought with each progressing track until at the end of the second play I finally admitted that I liked it. I recently uploaded all of my Talking Heads albums recently, so maybe that got me warmed up for Contra. No one was more surprised with this review than me. Love the cover to. I think I made out with her at a church youth group sleepover.

  4. And also, Todd, I was trying to figure out why I loved that cover image so much, and I think you nailed it.

    I was a total Dorkus McGorkus in junior high. But I was a halfway cool kid in my church youth group. We went to a Tigers game once and had a sleepover afterwards at a church in nearby Livonia. The host church youth group threw us a “dance” in the gym. Two different Livonia girls “liked” me, and I made out with the tall one during “Almost Paradise” by the dude from Loverboy. A few minutes later I made out with the short one during “Against All Odds” by Phil Collins.

    Later, we all spent the night (co-ed!) in the gym in our sleeping bags, and I shared a pillow with one of them. Shamefully I can’t remember which one.

    This was the first time I ever kissed a girl and it’s two in the same night. Needless to say, I’ve never come even close to being that awesome ever in my life since then.

    I’m pretty sure the girl on the album is one of those two girls from that church in Livonia. I wish I could remember what either of them actually looked like, but as it is, this album cover is a fine substitute.

  5. Now you know why I no longer respect Paul Simon. And Jake, your story mirrors mine, including the two girl makeout scene. For us, it was a Brewers game. Both girls look good, if there Facebook profiles are any indication.

  6. I just added a higher-res photo above. Why not?

    “We know where the image came from, but we’re not being very specific about her. We don’t know her or anything,” Koenig said. “The picture is from 1983, but the last album cover was from 2006, and they kind of look like they both inhabit the same world. When we saw this image, we just found it very striking. And part of it is the look on her face. It’s not about the color of her hair, or the fact that she’s wearing a Polo shirt. What makes it interesting is her face.”

  7. I guess I’ll give VW another try. But really, I’m still stuck back on that Paul Simon story. Seriously now, can that be true?

  8. I came across the Paul Simon story and posted about it in April of ’08. At the time I felt Los Lobos should’ve not only sued him on principle but demanded satisfaction from their mutual record company. I mean, if they didn’t want the band suing that prick they should’ve at least renegotiated percentages on their contract, or something. Jeez…

    Also, it wasn’t the first time I’d read or heard unflattering comments about Simon from collaborators. (Dudes at NY recording studios where he’s worked have their fair share of anecdotes full rudeness and jackassery.) But the Lobos story is the most egregious example.

  9. I’ve never really like Graceland, but I’ve always liked Paul Simon. I hate hearing stories like that, because now I may have to reevaluate my relationship with him. I’m definitely rethinking Los Lobos though; I had no idea they had their paws in so much stuff. Like.. uh.. Faith No More? Really? That’s just weird.

  10. The Los Lobos thing sadly makes sense in context, purely in the sense that I thought one of the musicians who played on this album also had a similar action against Paul Simon and (if I recall) won a settlement from Simon and WB. Plus, supposedly Art Garfunkel has groused in similar directions about Simon’s songwriting-credit habits during their tenure together.

    Despite all of that, it doesn’t make Still Crazy After All These Years or There Goes Rhymin’ Simon any less wonderful of albums. It just, sort of, casts doubt on those solitary “Paul Simon” songwriting credits.

  11. I don’t think there’s any issue regarding his songwriting skills-but his ego is sure doing its job of jeopardizing his previous heights. If he wants to “bounce a tennis ball off the wall” and work out some rhymes, that’s fine. Just make sure the jam that you’re working off of is properly acknowledged when it’s time for it to be released. I believe the Wolves on this one. Simon is the one with more to lose on this. The irony is that his credibility would have still been in tact if he would have just given credit to those that helped him. It’s also interesting to me that the guys in Los Lobos weren’t the only one to cry foul on Simon’s dick moves. There’s another example in one of the links above that hints that the very idea of Graceland was forged elsewhere. These accounts and looking at Simon’s efforts immediately before Graceland point to someone that’s deficient in moral fiber. It’s not lost on me that the video for “Call Me Al”-where Chevy Chase takes over and acts like he’s the one singing the song, reducing Simon to a thumb twiddling sax player-is more ironic than funny.

  12. The Heidi Berg part of the story is vintage Simon…so disgusting.

    Bottom line: there was an admitted songwriting collaboration btwn Los Lobos and Simon on Graceland. And whether the song was a huge hit or lousy filler is irrelevant; it warrants a songwriting co-credit and all attendant royalties. Might be too late, tho.

    On a personal note, I’m just glad my dear friend Luis P–who loved the album–died without ever hearing about this.

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