Review: Vampire Weekend Contra (XL)

The New York band Vampire Weekend came out of nowhere a couple of years ago with a quirky and infectious debut album that combined African and other influences with spare electronica and intelligent lyrics in surprisingly appealing ways.
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The New York band Vampire Weekend came out of nowhere a couple of years ago with a quirky and infectious debut album that combined African and other influences with spare electronica and intelligent lyrics in surprisingly appealing ways. The group’s sophomore album, Contra, bears some similarities to that fine debut, but also is more assured, and it expands the group’s palette considerably. There’s a lot more going on musically this time around: Most of the arrangements are fuller and more interesting, incorporating both more diverse sonic textures from co-leader/keyboardist/guitarist/engineer Rostam Batmanglu, but also fine work from a number of outside guests, including several percussionists who bring new “heft” to the sound on some tracks, and some judiciously used string players.

Lead singer Ezra Koenig is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I find his vocals charming and unaffected, and once again the lyrics are a cut above standard pop writing. VW have been frequently compared to Graceland-era Paul Simon, and that is certainly in evidence on this album (especially “White Sky”), but that doesn’t give them enough credit for clearly drawing some of their inspiration from actual Zimbabwean and South African music, rather than stumbling on it second-hand through interpreters like Simon. And in truth, that’s just one aspect of their sound. Electronics really dominate and they are mostly used in inventive and unusual ways. (Though, personally, I did not need to hear one more band using the already clichéd Auto-Tune gimmick, as Koenig does on “California English”—they’re better than that—but everything else about the song is cool and well-executed.)

My favorite track is one of the simplest, “Taxi Cab,” with its throbbing electronic percussion, attractive melody and Simon-ish lead vocal—it reminds me a little of Elvis Costello’s spare, pulsating “Green Shirt.” But there’s lots to like on this album, and nearly as many different styles as there are tracks. And at just under 37 minutes, they don’t wear out their welcome; they leave you wanting to hear what’s coming next.

Producer: Rostam Batmanglu. Engineers: Batmanglu, Shane Stoneback and Justin Gerrish. Recorded at Treefort (Brooklyn), Avatar (NYC), Topetitud (Mexico City) and Hicks and Joralemon (Brooklyn). Mastering: Emily Lazar/The Lodge (NYC).

Must Play: “White Sky,” “Taxi Cab.”

Read the EM interview with Vampire Weekend.