The best thing about Vampire Weekend’s debut album was the joy inherent in a lot of the chords, vocals, and progressions, like one of Paul McCartney’s mouth-agape head-nods set to music. That’s really what it came down to for me, and once I was hooked I found myself singing along and — curse of all curses — Getting Behind this whole Vampire Weekend thing. It was twee done the right way, and if they wanted to do Paul Simon’s afro-fied rock-as-half-a-rhumba schtick, I didn’t mind, long as they sounded like they meant it. And they did, no? There was a backlash because there had to be one, but it was a pretty self-righteous trip that ignored the ultimate reality of rock: Musicians often steal and get away with it, period. Vampire Weekend “borrowed” a lot of “world”-ly ideas, yet none of their songs sound nearly as identical to their sources as, say, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” does to “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
So yeah: I was all set to dig in and fight Good ‘n’ Hard for Vampire Weekend — probably the least-typically “TMT” band on the planet — if the material of Contra were spry enough to hold the water drawn — and held — by the debut. Should I be thankful it isn’t? Nope. I’d actually kill for another record as good as Vampire Weekend kicking around in the mainstream. Unfortunately for all of us, I genuinely believe Vampire Weekend (not the “kids”) “don’t stand a chance” at duplicating their debut, mainly because they’ve received more hype than they can handle without having had to work overly hard to get there. It’s deadly, baby. I mean, where the fuck are Franz Ferdinand now? Arctic Monkeys (who are actually pretty decent)? Bloc Party? Fucking, fucking Kaiser Chiefs?
Yeah, that’s right, they’re DEAD TO YOU, man; they’re kaput. It seems like the only thing protecting our rockstars from themselves these days is the tried, true self-imposed-exile option, circa Sufjan Stevens, the I-went-solo option, or maybe the flop-so-bad-there-must-be-a-top-billed-reunion-coming-someday option, like The Libertines. Either path you choose, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that you’re just not as good as everyone thinks and could never be (and, after that, you’re going to have to realize that it doesn’t mean you suck, either). Contra isn’t really that bad, yet it’s also not nearly sturdy enough to maintain the puppy-love, Obama-esque crush many of us have had on them (and, like I mentioned, it COULDN’T EVER be).
A few examples why:
- “Horchata” is the sound I make when I “HORK” up my lunch after hearing an awful choice for a lead single. This is truly an indefensible song that seems strictly built around these four collegiate fuckers really, REALLY wanting to make a song about — or called “Horchata.” Like “Oxford Comma,” the only thing people will find appealing about this tune is its trivia-lite subject (I know what Horchata/an Oxford Comma is! I’m smart!) and the fact that the song itself doesn’t challenge them in the very least. “Horchata” cheapens what Vampire Weekend are trying to do with the rest of the record, as “Oxford Comma” did.
- The trumpets of “Run” are so slick and stupidly synth-sounding I’m almost expecting to find out they’re real.
- “California English” finally delivers “world” aficionados a legitimate reason to bitch with atROCious stabs at afro-something-or-other.
- Keyboard player Rostam Batmanglij is so busy making his presence felt (perhaps buoyed by his Discovery project) he bludgeons a few of the tunes to oblivion. The more I listen to Contra, the more I realize Batmanglij (didn’t realize before, but this dude’s last name, abbreviated, is “Batman”) is a cheap vehicle through which Vempire Weekend feign musical diversity.
- “Giving Up the Gun” makes less of an impression than perhaps any Vampire Weekend song save “Oxford Comma.”
- And, finally, Contra has no Flow. If we are at the tail-end of the era of the Album, maybe Contra should be the nail in the coffin; never, at one moment does it take on the appearance of a true front-to-back effort, reveling instead in an outright jumble of tunes that have little to do with each other.
I don’t want to call Contra Vampire Weekend’s Our Love to Admire, but it is interesting to compare the two, as Interpol were to 2001/02 what VW were to 2008, the only difference being how fast the flames get fanned in this day and age makes the whole Interpol thing seem quaint (as the Joy Division comparison does, in light of the unrivaled JD worship of 2009). While Contra isn’t so obvious a limp to some imaginary finish line as Our Love to Admire was, it does have that “Give the people what they want, which isn’t much” gist, a shame in light of the songs that do offer something unique, especially to the musical layperson.
“Taxi Cab” blends its strings and synths — all tucked-snug inside a tiny wind-up musicbox, which opens up at :51, 1:38, 2:00, and 2:57 minutes in; gorgeous — so well you wonder if the same band wrote and recorded “Run.” “Diplomat’s Son” is one of those Vampire Weekend vamps that, like “Mansard Roof” (with its fantastic Walkmen-esque end-build), “A Punk” (despite its overuse on movie soundtracks), “M79,” and “Boston,” can be used to remember the months after which it came out by. In other words, “Diplomat’s Son” and the preceding early V. Weekend tracks are good enough to sum up months of one’s life, if one is inclined to remember large chunks of memory/time that way (I can own up to remembering July 2009 through “Boston” and “Boston” alone).
It’s too bad. I’ll trade a good album for a scathing — or, in this case, indifferent — critique any day.