Sorry, bloggers. You’re going to have to hate on someone else this time around. Vampire Weekend has avoided the sophomore slump. Weren’t you all worried about that? No? You had them down for a tour-de-force follow-up all along? OK. My mistake. Sorry.
It seems like no band has ever experienced the malice and expectation that Vampire Weekend did when the dust had settled on the buzz (also created by bloggers) from their self-titled debut album, which was one of the best and hottest of 2008. I would say that you have to go back to the Strokes, in the aftermath of “Is This It” to match the anticipation and lack of faith. Seems like the worst thing you can do is release a great album on your first try. Either everything or nothing is expected of you. Also, if the style of the second album is too similar to the first you are accused of cashing in on the past. However, if you take a drastic leap and try something new, it seems like no one will like it and your band will be dismissed as a one-hit wonder. It happened with the Strokes.
However, “Contra”, Vampire Weekend’s second shot at the business of impossibly infectious, African-Classical/Indie Pop guava juice is, thankfully, mostly damn entertaining, and flows in the same vein. There are little tweaks, of course, but these only enhance the new tracks, rather than ruin them for die-hards who clamor for more of the same. At the same time, the tweaks should satisfy some of the critics who denigrate the band for their so-called cultural appropriation (meaning they are stealing African rhythms for their own nefarious purposes).
Well, what about that? First of all, I have never heard of an African musician copyrighting a rhythmic cycle (you may point to the case of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, but that pertains to lyrics, not beats. Also, you can ruminate about the ethics of this reality, but you cannot, for the most part, deny it.) When I first heard Vampire Weekend’s debut I immediately thought, “Paul Simon, ‘Graceland’.” The comparisons are fair in a way, I think, but here’s the rub: Paul Simon recruited South African and other musicians, while Vampire Weekend is making their own music, borrowing from others who have come before, of course, but making their own music nonetheless. It is clear that, with all the cultural kleptomania going on, Vamp Week should be judged on their merits as a band using diverse influences, nothing more or less.
Another criticism of the band has been that they are not “serious”. Their music is dismissed as lightweight and frivolous. Even if that is the case, then what of it? Does music always have to be a weighty affair? Also, it’s possible that people are not looking deep enough. With “Contra” these East Coast boys are apparently exploring Left Coast tropes. And is this title a shot against critics? Contra means against in Spanish and could also refer to fighters the US backed in Nicaragua through the sale of weapons to Iran in order to fight Communism in Latin America. Even their name could be a veiled attack on the current craze surrounding vampire culture and the short attention span in entertainment these days.
Enough with the conjecture: Beg, borrow, or steal this album. It’s as pleasurable as the first. Although we head to the West Coast for this one, we’re not really going Latin (fortunately or unfortunately.) “California English” is an adroit opening, but only sucks you in for the treasures to come, like the knuckle of a crab. “Diplomat’s Son” is a deliciously naughty song about taking advantage of Joe Strummer’s son by “docking” him, cock-slapping his girlfriend, then fire-bombing the Managua International School (some of the preceding may not be true.) “White Sky” sounds like the lead singer was kicked in the nuts while riding shotgun in the Balloon Boy’s mushroom-shaped zeppelin, but somehow it works. “Giving up the Gun” and “Cousins” are more driving than most songs we have ever heard from the Vamps, and it is not an unwelcome departure. “Horchata” (which you can download from their website) made me want to drink one, with or without a balaclava. The sun is shining and we are walking down a sun-drenched street, skipping to an imaginary beat, in the first stages of a relationship that is bound to last for ages or at least a few minutes.
I’m not going to say that “Contra” is world-changing or anything like that. It is an album of enjoyably poppy music, drawing from many sources, played by East Coast American musicians. There’s no need to look too deep, but also no need to look past.