Vampire Weekend. You love them or hate them or love to hate them. The question of how authentic they are in their music and dress seems to be the Achilles heel for this quartet, and the blogosphere lauds them one day, raises concerns over their sweaters, then hypes the shit out of the leaks and this new album. From all the controversy and adulation, you’d think Contra marked the coming of the Messiah.
The authenticity argument doesn’t make sense. Ezra Koenig’s teaming up to do “Warm Heart of Africa” with The Very Best and MIA shows a level of respect and understanding. Moreover, we live in a hybridized world, and if you get riled up over white college-grads with Afropop leavings, would a white hip-hop artist or a black electronic producer upset you? The blogosphere also took a moment to ridicule the band doing “research” in California, as if there is something wrong with taking a deliberate approach to making music. Heck, don’t most musicians think about putting an album together? Ditto for making an effort to having a unified look onstage. Contra is cohesive and concise; it may have the effervescence of California, but it is over in a New York minute.
Perhaps we read into Vampire Weekend too much? Is attribution the heart of the contradictory feelings I have about this band? I love and hate them at the same time; more specifically, I hate that I love them. As a recent graduate from a preppy liberal arts college, Vampire Weekend is so close to home, but whatever maladjusted tendencies I have, it should not get in the way of listening. Rather, it renders the band genuine. We hardly need another dumbed-down band commandeering our speakers. Let Koenig sing something really clever.
The pure, unbridled joy of singing aloud “Blake’s got a new face” from “One” off the self-titled debut is toned down this time around. Marking the album’s center is “Run” with giddy and guilt-free instrumentation nipping at Koenig’s heels at the chorus, as if the music is ready to get out of here to find a more peaceful place. Contra is certainly a product of the chaos that was 2009, but more importantly, it marks a transition for a band moving past an debut greeted with much fanfare through life experiences to lead up to a sophomore record. It sounds like they took the journey to heart, and, though it’s undoubtedly a joyful album, it has cracks. Uncertainty is not the cause; rather, there is a loss of innocence here, and the records passes through a transition from a summer-sun-soaked romp and dazzling “Horchata” to the doleful “I Think UR A Contra.” Koenig sings lines such as “it’s now or never” on the electronic-friendly “Diplomat’s Son.” He has a wish to go back to the way things were or could have been, like “you stand so close to me, like the future was supposed to be” on “Taxi Cab.” There is more to Vampire Weekend than handsome faces and glitzy songs like “Cousins.”
On “California English” they use Auto-Tune and do not try to hide it. The whole-hearted embrace of the tool seems vital to produce this triumphant song, blissfully capturing the allure of an idealized California (read: America). It embellishes the track, and the Vampire Weekend of 2008 was all for embellishments. “Holiday” is most similar to the debut, but on Contra the band cultivated its sound as they matured a bit themselves. Something magical happens on “Giving Up the Gun.” It whizzes in, and armed with superb harmonies, is a call to rally. Koenig coos:
Your sword’s grown old and rusty underneath the rising sun / It’s locked up like a trophy / Forgetting all the things its done / And though it’s been a long time / You’re right back where you started from / I see it in your eyes / Now you’re giving up the gun… I see you shine your way / Go on / Go on…
Maybe those who wish to hate would prefer it if Vampire Weekend didn’t speak on their behalf because they capture the hope, tension, euphoria and disillusionment that being young is all about. I think I hear a band distinctly my generation.