Album review: Vampire Weekend - Contra


NEW York's Vampire Weekend are one of the most distinctive bands to emerge in the last couple of years, a refreshing blast of fresh air blowing out of the left-field or, more specifically, the Ivy League campuses. They wore their learning proudly, but everyone knows it's all about the music, dummy, and this clever-clogs quartet, with their lyrical references to punctuation on their single Oxford Comma, are capable of creating hooklines so catchy they could double up as advertising jingles.

Their bright (in a couple of senses) self-titled debut album, released in January 2008, provided an antidote to the faux-angsty chest-beating of their UK indie brethren. Vampire Weekend set out deliberately to bodyswerve prevailing musical trends yet, in so doing, they kickstarted one themselves by marrying the college indie rock sound expected of their ilk with jangling Afrobeat guitars and rhythms. They dubbed their surprisingly seamless concoction "Upper West Side Soweto", making the transatlantic link explicit on songs such as Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. Where they led, others followed, in more hesitant fashion.

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Their follow-up album, streaming for the last few days on their website and Myspace page, is a more subtle and less immediate start to this year. If anything their debt to Paul Simon's Graceland album is even more tangible this time round, thanks as much to frontman Ezra Koenig's fleet-footed way round a melody as to their continuing love affair with African instrumentation and offbeat lyrics.

The tracks White Sky and California English (a companion to Oxford Comma, perhaps?) both sound like Graceland outtakes with a bit of electronic massaging. The former is a childlike gambol around New York, espousing a very different Empire state of mind to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, which sees fresh perspectives in its architecture and new possibilities in its streets. The latter is more of a hectic canter, with Koenig falling over the almost impenetrable lyrics.

Koenig has stated that Contra is about "retro gaming and Nicaraguan politics". It might as well be for all that is discernible of the words in certain tracks. Their chosen title is a play on Sandinista!, the 1980 triple album by The Clash, a band loved, but not necessarily aped by Vampire Weekend. Sandinista! is commonly acknowledged to be a sprawling mess; in contrast, Contra is pithy at just over half an hour long.

Opening track Horchata begins with a bravura/grating example of Vampire wordplay, to rival even the "too plebeian / through with me and" couplet from Cry Me A River. "In December, drinking horchata, I'd look psychotic in a balaclava" is an observation one could certainly agree with, or admire for its creative rhyming pattern (Koenig is just getting warmed up – there's more where that came from) – or just sing along with mindlessly. The latter response being the one that sells Vampire Weekend albums by the truckload.

The rest of the lyrics require a dictionary to decode but the wide-eyed swell of joy in the delivery, the gossamer melody and the infectious chime and thump of African percussion are easier to connect with.

That's also the case on Run, which teams juddering bass and techno beats with a cascading brass hookline that is more eloquent than the lyrics, and recent single Cousins which combines the west coast traditions of ska-punk and surf guitar with a helter-skelter momentum, while the lyrics riff on nothing more substantial than daft word association.

The quirky indie pop track Holiday also bowls along chirpily in ostensibly throwaway fashion until it gets to the darker, more politically minded bridge of the song.

The hectic pace drops to a tender electro waltz on the music box pretty Taxi Cab, while Giving Up The Gun is commercial-as-in-predictable mellow pop rock, sounding like any number of innocuous entries on the Radio 2 playlist, with Koenig's breathy whimsy giving way to muscular drums and twinkling backing vocals.

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Things get interesting again on Diplomat's Son, which contrasts an MIA sample and a lolloping reggae breakdown with the melodic sweetness and light of Koenig's vocals, effortlessly skating around the tune.

He sounds equally lithe on the closing, track, a rueful ballad called I Think U R A Contra. This track also shares MIA's propensity for using guerilla imagery, though, for once, Koenig takes the path of least resistance and turns in a direct, vulnerable lyric to convey his disillusionment with a relationship: "you wanted good schools and friends with pools, you wanted rock'n'roll, complete control… I just wanted you".

Sometimes, it's best to drop the ingenuity and just share the sentiment.



Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, Sat 16 January

COMBINING elements of a club night and an East European hootenanny, Balkanarama is poised to be one of the biggest parties of this year's Celtic Connections. Contemporary Hungarian wedding band Besh o droM headline, supported by Edinburgh ten-piece Black Cat Balkan Band. There's a traditional gypsy jam session to open proceedings, plus films, DJs, belly dancing – and homemade baklava.

• Tel: 0141-353 8000

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