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The TBTS Roundtable: Vampire Weekend’s Contra

January 20, 2010

(Editor’s Note:  The TBTS Roundtable brings the Society together at Brown Tweed Manor to discuss a selected tidbit of pop culture. This week we dissect the latest release from Vampire Weekend, Contra.)

Caleb: It’s usually hard for a band to come out from under expectations, and with all the hype that Vampire Weekend incurred in 2007, a sophomore slump seemed inevitable.  And honestly upon my first listen to Contra, I was underwhelmed.  After hearing lead singer Ezra Koenig’s contribution to what I considered the best song of 2009, The Very Best’s “Warm Heart of Africa,” and after reading some of the band’s pre-release comments, I expected the new stuff to go in two new directions:  electronica with hip-hop beats.  So when I heard the album opener, “Horchata”, I couldn’t help but be disappointed.  Not because it was a bad song, but because it could easily have been placed on the first album and it would have fit right in.  It seemed after the first five tracks like Vampire Weekend was out to give us more of the same (except with a little Auto Tune thrown in).

Then, beginning with “Run”, I started to hear some departures from the formula.  Synthesized horns (“Run”), sampled chimes and 80’s synth-pop (“Giving Up the Gun”), the Atari-like music break at the 3:15 mark of “Diplomat’s Son”, and a lovely, restrained sort-of ballad (“I Think Ur A Contra”).  While not necessarily original, these elements strengthened the songs considerably.  Then it hit me, the Achilles’ Heel of this album lies in its sequencing.  So I tried a little experiment and listened to the album in reverse order.  Suddenly, it gained some life and had such momentum going into the second half of the album that I actually welcomed the last three tracks, in this case “Holiday”, “White Sky”, and “Horchata.”  Actually, “Horchata” worked much better as the album closer rather than the album opener.  Even with the resequencing, I expect that Contra isn’t going to make it onto my “Best of 2010” list, but it’s much better than I originally thought.

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Lloyd: Given my prior disfavor for Vampire Weekend, I actually expected to feel quite a bit more negatively about Contra than I do. I will say up front that Track 2, “White Sky,” makes me want to punch something (and not in that good way that listening to Buzzcocks or The Wipers does). What a needless, pandering, quirky-for-quirk’s-sake waste of talent that song is. But I digress.

Speaking of musical talent, Vampire Weekend’s is obvious, as is their studious, transcontinental knowledge of musical forms. I’m not the first to make this point, but they’re TOO studious at times. Too mannered, restrained, polite, tasteful, etc. When they cross that boundary, their shtick is way too 1987 Paul Simon for my tastes. Actually, that comparison is unfair to Paul Simon, who actually had the decency to include real African musicians when he aped African musical styles on Graceland. How about a different reference point for Vampire Weekend at their worst…how about the Lion King soundtrack? How about “Disney indie”?

Now, back to the positive—I quite like four of these tracks, and that’s about five more than I was expecting (I thought they were gonna owe me one). I like the three tracks where they actually cut loose and sound like they have a pulse: “Holiday,” “Run,” and “Cousins,” along with “Taxi Cab,” one of the quieter tracks (nice, twinkly little piano refrain in that one).

I think Caleb’s point about sequencing is smart and quite valid. As a full-length album, this doesn’t quite work in the sequence VW has given us. Any album that expects “White Sky” to carry the important Track 2 load (taking the momentum of Track 1 and carrying it even further, as John Cusack says in High Fidelity) is in deep trouble.

But again, having said all that, my genuinely liking four out of ten tracks is not what I was expecting. So color me pleasantly surprised.

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T. D.: Caleb, I’m sure this will be insulting to you but, by some cosmic mistake, I think you and I share a handful of the same musically-triggered brain cells.  On first listen (of Side A), I thought Contra was an extension of VW’s debut.  While I appreciate continuity in sound, there’s a point where it is too similar.  And Auto-Tune on “California English?”  WTF?!?  Lloyd, you might have been ready to punch stuff after the second song; for me, by the time I heard the Auto-Tune I was ready to scream (in fact, I did, a lot, and my wife laughed).  Fortunately, “Taxi Cab” was just chill enough to save the record from getting snapped over my knee.

I held off on listening to the B-side but was pleasantly surprised when I finally gave it a spin.  The last run of four songs are almost enough to redeem the utter blah-ness of 1-5 (jury is still out on “Run”).  I wouldn’t go so far as to consider it experimental or anything of the sort; it’s just that they (at least “Giving up the Gun,” “Diplomat’s Son” and “I Think Ur a Contra”) don’t sound virtually identical to every other VW song.  “I Think Ur a Contra” is, to my ears, the best track on the album and perhaps the best VW  song to date.  It is a beautiful, warm, evocative, and sophisticated song that will certainly find itself a home in a great scene in a great movie, which is fitting because, like a great movie, I was disappointed when this song came to an end.

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T. Stump: I find it curious that two of the most critically-acclaimed bands of the past year can point to Paul Simon as a primary antecedent. Much virtual ink has been spilled amidst descriptions of VW’s earnest homages to Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. Less has been spoken of The Dodos, who appear to have based their entire aesthetic upon Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia”, and as a massive fan of that song, I am all for it – especially if it leads to tunes like “Jodi”. “Fables” captures a similar vibe, although their second album departs from the “Cecilia” template. And what a shame that truly is.

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C.M.: It’s really unfortunate, I think, that Vampire Weekend was so overhyped before many of us heard them for the first time. Truly it’s no mean feat that these kids from Columbia U. supposedly put their own debut album together themselves using old-fashioned ingenuity and gumption — and it’s not their fault they found themselves oversaturating hipster circles with massive hype. In fact, I’d wager to say that if any of us happened upon these guys in a local bar, we’d go quite crazy for them. Personally, I thought the band’s debut was one of the best debut albums I’d heard in some time, though it’s true that Contra does seem to give us more of the same. Sometimes, however, I think we as critics (I know I do, at least) get hung up on dissecting things so much that we can forget that sometimes an album can just be an enjoyable, pleasant listen.

The argument, to me, seems to be:  is a solid album of “more of the same” so terrible for a second outing from a basically still-fledgling band? Not every album has to be Paul’s Boutique, and after all, these are still kids — I’ve no fear they’ll delve into other realms before their long careers are over. Songs like “Horchata” and “Giving Up the gun,” it’s true, could fit seamlessly into the previous release, but songs like “Taxi Cab” and “Cousins” hint that these boys may just be getting started in terms of exploring their capabilities. At the end of the day, Contra isn’t exactly anything new for the VW fan, but I think the fact remains that the band’s premise alone — Hamptons clambake by way of Ladysmith Black Mombazo — is one of the most individual and outside-the-norm we’ve seen from next-gen musicians in recent years. And there’s something to be said for that, I believe. I’m going to hang on to these guys, because I think they’re oeuvre will end up being impressive.

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Vampire Weekend’s Contra was released on January 12, 2010 on XL Recordings, Ltd. It debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

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3 Comments
  1. January 20, 2010 4:54 pm

    Alan, that’s a good point, and I didn’t mean to overstate. I should clarify. That statement was more geared toward folks who dislike the band sheerly because of their “overhypedness” (of which I suspect there are more than a few, especially among the effusive Pitchfork-haters). Never meant it to apply to ANYONE who listened to their music, nor to insinuate that any of us care at all about album status or hype. I think we’ve all proven through our various posts that we don’t put much stock in that.

    Please know that I’m all about people enjoying their particular brands of tea.

  2. Paul permalink*
    January 22, 2010 12:46 pm

    You guys can kiss my Pitchfork-hatin’ patoot.

  3. T. Stump permalink
    April 24, 2010 7:32 pm

    I forgot to add something to my original post:

    My Sansa 1gb mp3 player will randomly rearrange the order of songs within the same album. When I listened to in on CD, I was slightly taken aback by the actual running order of the songs. The final 10 seconds of “Cousins” is the most sonically-interesting music they’ve ever recorded, and will likely get my “So. Central Rain” award for 2010’s best musical conclusion (to those who have yet to experience that particular Document of greatness, listen to the whole song, and tell me that ending isn’t the best ever).

    You should look up last year’s “So Central Rain” – “What She Came For” by Franz Ferdinand (just trust me)

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