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Contra means to be against or oppose to something. Synonyms of contra are; Rival, opposing, challenging, hostile, and competing (notice the oxford comma?). These are all pretty cynical words for bands whose first album were filled to the brim with nostalgic jams, and Contra is no different. Just listen to the instant winner White Sky, the second track. In fact the only hostile thing about this gem are the opening verses Ezra Koenig sings on Horchata – “In December drinking horchata/I look psychotic in a balaclava” but then goes on to sing “Here comes the feeling you thought you’d forgotten” What is he doing? All this word play is giving me a headache. Is it the Wolf Parade affect – In which upbeat melodies are used to cover up the horrifically detailed, depressing wordplay, so in effect would have the listener leaving happy? Or am I just looking too much into it? Either way, I’ve just compared Vampire Weekend to Wolf Parade and raised too many questions for an album by a band of such simple merit. Time to get back on track…
The sound hasn’t dramatically changed, there are still those catchy hooks every 30 seconds and shiny gleaming vocal melodies, but Contra borrows more from the keyboardist’s recent side-project, Discovery, than it does from the s/t debut. Contra glows with samples and synths. The amount of musicians and bands trading their instruments for synthesisers and samplers this past half a decade has been unreal, and without making the obvious comparisons, Vampire Weekend are now one of the few that has managed the transition neatly and still keeping their dignity and their own distinctive sound intact.
From a listener’s perspective, Contra isn’t an album I would ever call a breakthrough or even react to on an emotional level. Made entirely of shimmering poppiness, it doesn’t have enough impact to hit someone on that level. It’s not an album you’d listen to on your own with headphones on in your bedroom, it’s, dare I say it, a party album. But aesthetically, The Ruby Suns are a very close comparison, and these days, anything Sub Pop, which would be a considerable record label and maybe a fitting next step for Vampire Weekend. Sub Pop are has grown from having a niche audience to a record label of almost biblical like praise, much like Vampire Weekend.
But with all this praise, and although nothing too drastic, Contra does have a couple of unfortunate flaws. The first hint of misfortune in an otherwise solid album appears in California English, or really, is California English. It just isn’t on the same level of quality as the rest of the album. And the opening is a studio cut and paste, auto-tuned state of affairs which fails to impress. And secondly, like the debut, Contra is pretty short. They’ve proved that they can do long songs on this one with Diplomat’s son (the best on the album) clocking in at six minutes, something I doubted they’d manage. It just makes the album feel like a collection of songs as opposed to an actual album.
There’s lots of delicate and intricate small things you may miss upon first listen, like four minutes into Giving Up The Gun there’s the women singing in the background who has the voice of an angel. And the snippets where the keyboardist, Rostam Batmanglij lends his vocal harmonies on Diplomat’s Son. This was unheard in the debut with its raw, almost monophonic sound compared to Contra’s multiple sounds, but contradicting this is the closing song, the most perfect ending to the album I could’ve ever hoped for, minus it’s stupid name. I Think Ur A Contra is a slow jam stripped down to its naked body and nothing more and is the quiet, modest masterpiece of Contra.
Forget Indie Rock, or twee, or afro-pop, Vampire Weekend are slowly moulding their own beautiful genre. This is a brilliant move from Vampire Weekend and like their fellow New York rockers Spoon did, I can see them releasing many consistently brilliant albums in the future, but for the next couple of years, we have two virtually flawless records to play to death.