I think reviewing music has made me pessimistic over the past few years. I find that even my favorite band’s next album is bound to disappoint. Take 2009 for example. I was thinking the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic was going to let me down, as their previous LP, but it rocked and completely restored my faith in them. But on the other hand, my suspicions were confirmed when Peal Jam’s Backspacer sounded like an Eddie Vedder summer mix….which was not a good thing. Now, Vampire Weekend’s sophomore record, Contra, looms before me. To be honest, I was a little less pessimistic about this record than my previous examples. It took me a while to warm up to VW’s self-titled debut, but now a few choice cuts stand out on my summer playlists.
The first thing that is fairly obvious about Contra is that it tries hard to stand apart from the light afro-beat infused sound of it’s predecessor. I mean REALLY hard. It seems like the best way to accomplish this was to bring in the synths. Most of Contra is bubbling with hard synthesized beats and riffs, which is what is going to polarize it’s audience. On one side, you have those who appreciate this new direction. The songs are more beat heavy, but they still manage to capture that brisk, light sound you look for in Vampire Weekend. Ezra Koenig’s voice still bounces up and down the scale triumphantly. And his lyrics are still filled with the double speak and clever comparisons he offered up last time. Songs like “White Sky” and “Horchata” will brighten your day.
But then there is the other side……and it happens to be the side I drifted towards. This is the side that can find the synth to be too much. Maybe it’s the production’s fault, but the beats are too loud. So the clever afro-beat instrumentation I warmed up to the first time gets drowned out. Songs like “Giving Up The Gun” and the Auto-Tuned “California English” just grate against my ears, causing me to turn the volume. Occasionally, the instruments win out (“Taxi Cab,” and the good “Diplomat’s Son”),and the album shines for me. But those moments are few and far between.
I’m not going to dissuade anyone from listening to Contra. It’s simply not a bad album. But, for me anyway, it is also not a great one. After their debut, I was hoping VW’s follow up would sound something like a Fela Kuti demo, sprinkled with a dash of Pavement. But, that’s not what the band seemed to be on board with. Instead, they’ve set out to sail on their own boat, doing a decent job of separating themselves from the rest of the fleet. I’m just not sure I want to keep my boarding pass anymore.