The privilege is ours: A review of Vampire Weekend's 'Contra'

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Vampire Weekend's new album, "Contra," arrives at the dawn of what's sure to be a decade of details. The small stuff will be sweated. And tweeted. And micro-blogged. The revolution will be televised in 3-D.

That makes Vampire Weekend a defining band for our oversaturated information age. Love 'em, hate 'em (or really, really hate 'em), this is a group that knows how to turn a thousand little pieces into one big, irrepressible hook.

At its best moments, "Contra" crams Afropop mimicry, new-wave melody and an arsenal of playful electronic textures into a single sonic space, suggesting a band that plays fast, loose and around the clock -- the same approach one might apply to Twitter.

Frontman Ezra Koenig wouldn't need Google or Bartlett's to tell you that the old "God is in the details" quote belongs to modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Leading a quartet of Columbia University grads, Koenig is an unabashed smarty-pants whose lyrical references to sculptor Richard Serra (on "White Sky") and Tom's of Maine toothpaste (on "California English") would be cloying were they not sung with such relish. He seems to delight in these quirky, cross-cultural allusions. Why sing about rice milk and ski masks when you could be rhyming "horchata" with "balaclava"?

Such is the case with "Horchata," an opening track that captures the album's essence: ornate electronic melodies that are tough to dislike, matched with words that would serve Koenig well in a game of Scrabble.

But what Koenig really has to gain here is the respect of skeptics who dismissed Vampire Weekend's wonderful 2008 self-titled debut as a hyperhyped imitation of Paul Simon's "Graceland" -- penned by a crew of smug preppies with a presumably facile understanding of the African sounds they were stealing, no less. The band's Ivy League pedigree rubbed many the wrong way, but instead of trying to live it down, Vampire Weekend wisely chose to live it up.

And so arrives the all-important sophomore album. Kindred Manhattan rock bros the Strokes faced similar expectations in 2003, but failed to deliver a collection as cool and assured as "Contra." Granted, the stakes were a bit higher. The Strokes had been anointed as rock-and-roll saviors while Vampire Weekend is still seen as the byproduct of an overzealous blogosphere eager to crown new kings.

But that doesn't make Vampire Weekend less of a rock band -- nor does the group's impossibly fabulous array of cable-knit sweaters. The Strokes were rich kids faking their way through some CBGB revival fantasy while Vampire Weekend wears its privilege without shame. From tousled coif to loafer.

And while the band's members should be applauded for keeping it real, their appeal lies in the escapism they provide. They're a troupe of bons vivants maxing and relaxing in the throes of a failing economy. With the job market looking more grim with every semester, try to find a college radio DJ who hasn't fantasized about chilling with the band on that sailboat featured in the "Mansard Roof" video from 2008. Living large on Mom and Dad's yacht after graduation sure beats living in Mom and Dad's basement after graduation.

Multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij makes it easy to escape into "Contra," serving up countless digital bells and whistles that never distract from the song at large. Drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio help Batmanglij bring it all into beautiful focus with "Giving Up the Gun," combining Fugazi's chug-a-lug guitar riffage with glockenspiel plinks and ring-tone plonks. "My ears are blown to bits from all those rifle hits, but still I crave that sound," Koenig sings, as if he can't get enough of it.

With "Cousins," the band raise the ghost of the Minutemen with magnificent results. No synthesizers here -- just twitchy guitars and church bells chiming to a punk tempo. It serves as the album's one requisite slap in the face.

"Run" is even more compelling. Koenig croons about his search for a way out, but his carefree delivery suggests it's only a daydream. As the song approaches its finale, a lone synthesizer begins to warp, creating a nervous, minor-key melody. It's the only moment on "Contra" where Vampire Weekend shows a trace of anxiety -- a detail that shouldn't be missed.

Recommended tracks

"Run," "Cousins," "Giving Up the Gun"

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