Saturday, January 30, 2010
"In December, drinking horchatas," sings Ezra Koenig on the opener of Vampire Weekend's new album, Contra. The light, syncopated melody fizzles out any lingering remnants of the day's past playlists, and you're hooked. The marimba, of all things, takes center stage, and then the brash drum line, accompanied by the epic "Whoa, oh oh, oh oh, oh oh," chorus belter. "Horchata" harkens back to a similarly early-in-the-year game changer Merriweather Post Pavillion and its lead track "In The Flowers." Both songs set the stage for the rest of their bands' respective albums, and like MPP did in 2009, Contra has already set the bar high for the rest of the year's releases.
Vampire Weekend, once merely fledgling indie starlets, have in the space of one album progressed to full-grown indie rock standard-bearers. Their self-titled debut, while snappy and unique, lacked subtlety, drive, and dynamics. It offered a rough sketch of what was to come later: an inventive lead singer, unique melodies, and energy, energy, energy.
Stylistically, Contra is a growth, not a shift, in the band's philosophy. Among the few subtle changes, Koenig's voice seems more intense, and his timbre is a bit deeper when it needs to be. The use of guitar is not as jarring as before, and the instrument takes on a supporting role to the keyboards, synths, strings, etc. Unfortunately, the group's drive for something new sometimes escalates into overboard expressionism; occasional melodic subtlety is often lost under broad strokes of careless layering in an attempt at depth.
While the band still owns the evolution of its unique sound, it's clear that some outside influences have played parts in their development. "California English" resembles a ramped-up version of Dirty Projectors' "Temecula Sunrise." (Koenig's high, sometimes-yelping voice already compares to DP's Longstreth.) Ezra may also have taken some inspiration from The Very Best after being featured on "Warm Heart of Africa," giving "Horchata" its contrasting electro/rustic beat with marimba overlay.
Contra ends with a slow and tender, surreal epic: "I Think You're A Contra." The song is a rare simplicity in an album of dense arrangements and even denser lyrics. But despite its apparent restraint, "Contra" has a grandness--a sizeable mass that is sometimes lacking in VW's songs. This might be the most literal aspect of the group's development: that they have risen from trite to tangible, from a style that's present to a style that's omnipresent.