Let’s be real. I’ve never bought so much as an earring from the United Colors of Benetton, I couldn’t locate Dharamsala on a map to save my life and I had no idea what kefir was. I’m not sure if Ezra Koenig and the boys of Vampire Weekend did it on purpose, but after listening to their self-titled debut I felt simultaneously poor, ignorant and uncultured.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Vampire Weekend. I still downloaded it, memorized all of its songs and spent weeks convincing myself that I had the right to sing about Cape Cod and Louis Vuitton. Collectively, Vampire Weekend felt like the self-important, charismatic popular kid at school who could make others look cool just by waving at them. Even though it was music by wealthy, educated people for wealthy, educated people, I wanted to feel like I was getting waved at, too. Despite the fact that I couldn’t relate to half the album’s songs, its crisp, mesmerizing vocals and its vacation-reminiscent carefree melodies were too catchy to ignore.
The band released its sophomore album, Contra, on Jan. 12. As much as I enjoyed Vampire Weekend’s debut, I was nervous about giving Contra a try. Who knew what I was going to be expected to keep up with this time?
Fortunately, it appears that the popular kids have finally graduated and are now searching for their place outside of preppy academia. Thankfully, Koenig and company use their talented lyricism to explore more widely applicable aspects of the human condition. Contra is more focused on the emotional struggle of reconciling one’s personal and class identities – an experience everyone can relate to.
Stylistically, the album is a musical medley. The band plays with a variety of sounds, from contemporary synthesizers to syncopated Afrobeats to classical orchestration. The album’s closing tracks, “Diplomat’s Son” and “I Think UR a Contra,” demonstrate far greater musically diversity. Clocking in at six minutes, “Diplomat’s Son” boasts electronic, classical and world influences, at times using instruments from one tradition to simulate the effects of another, like playing a piano and synthesizing a beat to sound like African xylophones. “I Think UR a Contra” continuously recreates itself, beginning with a New Age drone that slips in and out of jazzy interludes and ending with a folksy, tribal beat.
Thematically, Contra is wiser and humbler than its predecessor. Admittedly, the first few tracks on the album contain an overabundance of proper nouns and pseudo-intellectual references: Its opening track “Horchata” is an intimidating, dreamy haze in which Koenig rhymes “aranciata” with “Masada” and “balaclava.” Later tracks prove Koenig has learned to use terms the average American understands.
For instance, “Cousins,” which has received generous airtime on satellite radio since late 2009, is a frantic and jumpy throwback to English punk. Instead of hiding behind confusing name drops to illustrate the claustrophobia of the contemporary aristocracy, Koenig clearly sings, “me and my cousins/ and you and your cousins/ it’s a line that’s always running.” Later in “Run,” Koenig forgoes allusions to fancy clothing lines and academic phrases in favor of simple ones. “I could blame it on your mother’s head/ or the colors that your father wears,” is a general statement that a range of socioeconomic classes can empathize with.
So in case you’re curious, “aranciata” is carbonated water, “Masada” is a place in Israel and a “balaclava” is a ski mask. I have faith there will be meaning left in their music once they ditch the references. Whether you’re a fan of the band or not, it’s difficult to deny that Vampire Weekend is experimenting with music in a way that few contemporary groups would dare to do.
Stream Contra online for free at www.vampireweekend.com.