Usually my first reactions to new music are definite but when listening to Vampire Weekend’s sophomore album Contra I found myself in a quandary. This uncertainty manifested itself in the most physical way: my feet were unconsciously and convulsively tapping, while up above the reactions from my guts and brain eventually conjoined to trigger the most apathetic groan. The convulsions were unsettling but the more I listened to this album the more my symptoms changed, as apathy turned into shear annoyance.
My initial mixed feelings for Contra are likely to be shared by many who take a chance on this album. The first eight seconds of the opening track “Horchata” are enough to unsettle anyone, with some eye-pokingly irritating lyrics being backed by some pretty marimba. What transpires is an over-mixed concoction with too many ingredients and the Christmassy aspect of this song gave me a daymare, fearing that it may somehow boomerang it’s way into the collective consciousness of radio DJ’s and TV advert-makers come next winter. A scary thought.
I’m not quite sure how to pronounce Rostam Batmanglij’s last name but I’d like to think its ‘Batman-glitch’ – this man being very much the slightly-flawed superhero of Vampire Weekend.
As much as “Horchata” is repellently grandiose it also serves as a pointer to Vampire Weekend’s greatest asset and, at times, their own worst enemy: Rostam Batmanglij. It’s almost impossible to read a snippet about Vampire Weekend without there being reference to the Ivy League background of these four Columbia University grads, but what really gives the band their identity is their sound, and multi-instrumentalist and producer Batmanglij is the star man here. Contra is much less reliant on guitar than Vampire Weekend’s first record, in fact the guitar is almost anonymous, making way instead for keyboards, sequencers, synth pads and other gizmos, which is where Batmanglij finds an outlet for his creativity through all his tweaks, taps and twiddling.
I’m not quite sure how to pronounce Rostam Batmanglij’s last name but I’d like to think its ‘Batman-glitch’ – this man being very much the slightly-flawed superhero of Vampire Weekend. Rostam Batman has lots of tricks in his utility belt and sometimes he saves the day. If you’ll allow me to continue the Batman pun and to draw analogies from the film world, frequently Contra is a cringe-worthy and off-target as Batman & Robin but then in a couple of fleeting moments as genius as The Dark Knight.
One example of Batmangli’s super-heroic production is the excellent “Taxi Cab”. With this song all the pieces of the puzzle come together and the results are outstanding. It’s a track that rolls by with such an evocatively cool vibe, with good lyrics sung with fitting leisure, and out of nowhere a piano solo comes in, demonstrating Batmanglij’s knack for blending sounds with seamless and subtle prowess. Another success is “Giving Up The Gun”, a song in which Ezra Koenig outdoes himself by coming up with some lyrics which are actually memorable, and which are put to a masterfully mixed piece of driven electro-pop.
The fact is that a couple of great songs don’t make an album, and I find most of Contra to be so grating to the point where it all becomes unlistenable. The biggest turn-off for me is the vocal and lyrics of Koenig. “I Think Ur A Contra” is passable overall, but lyrically a let down – as strings come in and swoon to reach an emotive climax Koenig rhymes “You wanted rock and roll, complete control, Well, I don’t know”. It just sounds like such contrived pap, and to borrow the name of “Complete Control”, one of The Clash’s greatest songs, only adds salt to the wounds. In another instance the voice-corrected synth-ska production “California English” is just an irritating mess – this song should be labelled ‘Listen Once Then Destroy’.
It’s been impossible to ignore all the universal hype propelling Vampire Weekend right now, and I really tried with this one. In the end I listened to Contra so much that it became a chore, and music should never be a chore – I’ll be happily copying “Taxi Cab” and “Giving Up The Gun” to my iPod and moving on.
© Brian Banks