In 2007, a certain self-aware, adorably preppy band of Columbia University graduates burst onto the scene with cute ditties like “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” They called themselves Vampire Weekend, and the Afro-poppy sound of their eponymous debut album proposed a fresh, playful take on Manhattan high society.

Vampire Weekend

Contra
XL

The old VW embraced its prep-school lifestyle, or else cheerfully poked fun at it. But the new VW, as revealed on its newest release, Contra, is restless and rebellious. Somehow, four confident college kids have retreated to the J.D. Salinger discontent of high school.

So what is it exactly that’s been frustrating lead singer Ezra Koenig? “My revolution thoughts / Live in lies of desire,” he complains on album closer “I Think Ur A Contra.” The title only adds to the confusion, with the most arbitrary use of text-speak in recent memory. “We only work to live / Until we live to work,” Koenig mourns in “Run.” How utterly original. The lyrics throughout Contra are railing against something, but it’s impossible to say what. Phonies, perhaps?

“Diplomat’s Son,” a vague upbeat reminiscence, samples M.I.A., but to what effect? What’s happened to Bryn and Louis Vuitton and all the colorful idiosyncrasies decorating VW’s debut? Like much of Contra, the track doesn’t have much of a point, and while the music is enticing at first, it stays fairly static for six long minutes.

Likewise, “I Think Ur A Contra” fills a blender with sonic layering, rambling vocals and a latin-tinged piano riff to pour out a four-and-a-half minute glass of pointless meandering. You’d think VW’s Ivy League professors would have taught these boys how to be concise.

But the most obvious train wreck on Contra is “California English.” Fast-paced and disconnected, it employs jumpy staccato orchestration and Auto-Tune (really) for a jumpy and disconcerting overall effect. It’s not unlike the sound of a good song played backwards on a record.

Occasionally, however, Contra’s experimentation actually works. Case in point: “Cousins,” a joyfully wild roller-coaster ride powered by the grittiest guitars on the Upper West Side. It’s a departure, sure, but the yelping chorus and churning guitars manage to hold the track together.

Album opener “Horchata” takes the opposite route, forgoing guitars entirely to paint a picture of a Caribbean winter escape. Nostalgic strings and a cheerful mess of tropical island percussion anchor the simple but strong melody. Though lacking in lyrical innovation, this is easily Contra’s catchiest, most hummable track.

Despite a few shining stars, there’s nothing holding together the songs on Contra besides a vague sense of unease. “White Sky” is a bundle of teen angst wrapped in a pop song, while “Giving Up The Gun” pairs tired-out lyrics with tight, bouncy music. Hardly a cohesive whole, Contra is a collection of songs, each with its own take on what the new Vampire Weekend should be.

Impressive sophomore albums are notoriously difficult to pull off. To be successful, they must prove the group is more than a one-trick pony without completely alienating its fanbase. The overall sound of Contra is still cutely intellectual, still bouncy, still somewhat worldly — still Vampire Weekend. It’s the odd experimentation and lack of a thematic center that make the album weak. If VW releases a focused third album with more directed experimentation, maybe Contra will be remembered as nothing but a slight sophomore slump from the college kids who could. But it looks like this band’s going to have to work hard to keep up with its New York indie peers.

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