Okay, knives out. The Columbia rich-kid afro-indie pioneers are back, and even if you allowed that there were enough undeniable pieces of pop genius on the debut, it’s surely time to extract a pound of flesh from the sophomore effort as revenge for the hype and the polo shirts. What’s wrong with Contra, then?
Well, its first single and opening track Horchata is infuriatingly anaemic steel drum pop, and it’s named after a Latin American rice drink, in case you forgot how cosmopolitan Ezra Koenig is. On a whole-album scale, there’s also buckets of sonic experimentation for its own sake, from heavily treated drums to analogue-sounding synths and even auto-tune. It feels contrived, like a deliberate attempt not to make the cardinal error of replication
But, contrived or not, the band now audible on advertisements, over movie credits and bleeding from the iPod headphones of tweens have made a commendably brave creative decision. While afrobeat elements that created a talking point of Vampire Weekend in the first place, but it was the New York indie rock lineage that probably helped them cross over to a mainstream crowd, and they have relinquished that.
Even Cousins, the chaotic spiritual successor to A-Punk, is driven by heavily treated guitars and features some bizarre bells. The cheery White Sky is evidence that, as for many others, Animal Collective loomed large in Vampire Weekend’s 2009, but the Nigerian guitar lines stop it short of pastiche. Diplomat’s Son starts as an archetypical VW afropop song before taking a peculiar turn into rhythmic reggae on piano and fluttery strings. Weird stuff, but the eyes are never off the melody and, while often seemingly arbitrary, nothing is incongruous.
Broadly speaking, sonic unity is not something that Contra possesses, but that’s not to say that the box of chocolates approach doesn’t work. It becomes dependent on the strength of the songs, and barring the abomination that is Horchata, there’s more than enough here to pull it off. Sophomore slump averted.
Words: Karl McDonald