So, I saw on Twitter that Pitchfork said that these bros are totally bros and used to go see Phish and all that. Also my friend reported “someone just sent me third link to the new Vampire Weekend record I’ve gotten. Unrelated: I set my computer on fire and tried to eat it.”
All of which is funny—Vampire Weekend’s w00k roots given their enormous popularity, and the division they cause among listeners—‘cause their first album mostly just sounds like The Shins. Vampire Weekend’s African daydreams translated into a nice twist on guitar pop and frontman Ezra Koenig sold it well, with a decidedly upper-middle class sensitivity/apathy delivered in a pleasing timbre. Mostly, I think, it succeeded because their shtick, separate from their talents as songwriters, was understandable within the first 10 seconds of hearing most any one of their tunes. Not bad a for a collectively $300K Columbia education/band activation fee. (No, really. Vampire Weekend is a sweet record that holds up almost front-to-back. That’s a genuinely productive use of an Ivy education.)
Their sophomore album, Contra, moves those African fancies in a few different directions. The first, and most immediately satisfying, is towards actual 21st century African music. Within the first 20 seconds of “Horchata,” the album’s opening jam and lead single, the Vampires lay out the program — skittering thumb percussion mixed with tastefully thundering beats and Koenig singing about the weird winter treat of icy sweet Mexican sugar-milk. Its cold December setting is urban—or at least, decidedly urbane—while the music warms itself with in the vibrant dreams of elsewhere. “White Sky” continues the Afro-electro-pop vibe, and it maintains delightfully well, especially with some Graceland-style falsettos during the outro.
From there, though, the album uses the African idea with varying creativity. On “Holiday,” the intentions just sort of mush the band into something like Sublime. White boy reggae. And pretty much what my friend is getting at (at least in his other tweets), I think — music that simultaneously carries sophistication but plays to Dave Matthews’ fans. And, when addressing indie rock’s increasingly complex political situation—what happens when you remove intellectual and/or economic independence from its production—Vampire Weekend has some scary implications. Namely, that is, if one allows jambands as indendent music—which it is—then it’s entirely possible that jamband fans constitute the true silent majority of indie rock. Some might see that as problematic. I can’t imagine what “I Think UR A Contra” might do to brah’s computer, the song somehow turning an indie torch ballad into something else with the addition of an African-inspired delay loop. On “Giving Up the Gun” it tends to mostly sound like Postal Service with a harder backbeat, ready to translate into vaguely industrial whomps in the big rooms they’re sure to be headlining this year.
None of this is particularly Vampire Weekend’s fault, but they seem to have landed in a particularly hilarious cultural intersection. In places, like the bizarre surf-rock breaks of “Cousins,” Contra gels into what was special about Vampire Weekend: that it operated under its own unique combination of sounds and influences that had nothing to do with indie rock, jambands, and everything to do with music that lots and lots of people wanted to listen to. Contra continues to trust that mission, and right on for that. The world needs more bands that inspires people to try to eat their computers.