Thursday, April 12, 2018
Vampire Weekend: Contra (2010)
At the dawn of this decade, Vampire Weekend's second album hit #1, which could be interpreted in some unadjusted-for-inflation paradigm as a sign that Pitchfork-era indie had "made it," in a way the famous wave of New York alt-rock bands a decade earlier had not. What it really meant was probably just that the bar for chart placement had been lowered, but apart from that, there's no question that this exceptionally gregarious, accessible group's music sounds like it would easily have been a mainstream artifact in another era, in that it's the kind of material many of us would have to somehow strain ourselves not to like. Then, so does lots of "semi-popular music" from Big Star to Camera Obscura, but the great triumph of Contra (much more so than the debut) is how it melts resistance, not by force but by sheer charm.
It starts within a matter of seconds, with "Horchata" -- now a grocery store song, but at the time a total shock: the actual sound of world-opening joy embraced fully in the supposedly detached, irony-addicted context of indie rock. Funeral, one supposes, ran with similar open keenness, but Vampire Weekend exploit the same sort of immediacy without dispensing with precision, economy, archness. In an interview two years before this, Ezra Koenig said "Having grown up and been a kid in the grunge era, I automatically like stuff that isn't distorted"; what's interesting about this statement is that it qualifies verbally as well as musically. They make it sound easy to be right there in a moment without wringing one's hands over it, and so of course they quickly attracted resentment, even if as of the first time one hears "Horchata" and its immediate sequel, the Graceland-evocative but still sweet and singular "White Sky," it no longer becomes possible to render the band's name as a punchline.
There was controversy, of course. The cover photo of a vintage polo shirt-wearer started strange discussions about imagery and self-ownership, both inherently and because of a legal kerfuffle that grew from it. (The covers of this and the debut album both do the band few favors in fighting their reputation as yuppies wanking on about vacation homes.) The appropriation talk reared its head, as usual, though Ezra Koenig, Orchestra Baobob fan and collector of Kenyan psych 45s, inarguably knows more about African music than the great majority of his detractors; the accusation that Vampire Weekend conflated the music of squalor with the celebration of privilege (an element that does exist, though far more so on their first record) assumes that this juxtaposition is inherently problematic rather than potentially compelling, but regardless of that, what Vampire Weekend does is demonstrate the excitement of being a musical omnivore. It seems more than a little short-sighted to openly wish that indie rock would reduce, rather than broaden, its scope of influence, and this band's digestion of multiple sources has healthy analogues all across the history of guitar music, continuing a give-and-take tradition for which we owe nearly everything compelling about the music that enriches our lives. (Fanta Sylla's piece wrestling with this is worth a read.)
And enrich this does: the band's giddily light touch, their audience-friendliness and the wit and subtlety and cornucopia of ideas in Koenig's lyrics allow this nearly definitive summertime record to remain compelling across seasons, years, (so far) lifetimes; eight years past its trendiest of moments, it sounds as fresh as ever, and seemingly smarter and smarter. A slight willful weirdness, not so much in evidence on the first album and possibly the result of keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij's love of left-field consternation that still communicates bliss (listen to his solo cut "Bike Dream"), also increases the depth of songs like "California English" (now-amusingly fretted over at the time due to its use of Autotune) and "Cousins" that used to seem like annoying throwbacks and now reveal an accumulation of counterpoints and surprises that never did spring forth from "A-Punk."
Mostly, though, it's all pop, and splendid: indisputably modern and forward but classically pleasing, and its leanness (ten songs, less than forty minutes) permits each of its songs to forge a relationship without any of them growing indulgent or anonymous. It's paced so that its most purely exciting song, "Run," shows up roughly halfway in, and when its romantic abandon peaks with its so-very-Rostam worldbeat bridge, the timelessness and vitality of the moment is genuinely hard to shake; for someone who held this band at arm's length until that moment, it's powerful to feel them almost magically becoming an entity that you relate to, presumably because something you have in common is that you are moved by the conceit of surrendering to a song like they do here. It doesn't have to be that specific song; once something gets you, you hear the shading everywhere, and the off-kilter, unpredictable beauty of the record (and the artists) keeps showing itself. The cutesiness of "White Sky" and "Taxi Cab" drain until only their craft and emotion sing on; and the Bow Wow Wow-like pounding novelty and frat-like atmosphere of "Giving Up the Gun" give way to its sense of loss, while soon enough all that's left in the more sprawling "Diplomat's Son" is both its sing-song hop and its irreducible gorgeousness as both a melody and a production that feels totally still despite its persistent beat.
"Diplomat's Son" is probably the most "Africana" of these ten recordings, though it also betrays a direct reggae influence; elsewhere, while there's no doubt a push for the indescribably open feeling of King Sunny Ade and the like (little evidence here of the harder, more challenging corners of Afrobeat), you could argue easily enough that African music plays no larger a role here than rockabilly or surf music, but of course neither of those ideas emerged wholly formed in an American vacuum either; Dick Dale, who's all over "Cousins," was no less aware of regurgitating what he heard in his youth than these boys are, as witness his signature recording of "Misirlou." And "Holiday," though it's a bit slight compared to the other songs (and readymade for commercial usage), cements Koenig as a clear-as-day Buddy Holly acolyte; once you hear it, Paul Simon seems next to irrelevant to the conversation (and he would explore the resemblance in aesthetic and affect much more comprehensively on Modern Vampires of the City, which features a song that might as well be a Holly cover).
Koenig shouldn't really dominate the conversation here as much as he does; he doesn't seek to overwhelm his bandmates, and Batmanglij and the others are the reason we care enough to try to discern meaning from his words, but his singing -- leaps and bounds above where it was in 2008 already -- and writing are so perfectly suited to the band's chosen sound that it's difficult to imagine their work functioning remotely so well with even an extremely similar voice. Contra beckons back to the Clash's Sandinista! in numerous ways that invite deeper, more meditative analysis than can be emulated in simple verbal discussion, but the words that really stick out across the album -- "Taxi Cab," "Giving Up the Gun," "Diplomat's Son" -- share a wistful resignation about the passage of time. Indeed, in subject-matter terms, this album almost seems a more mature, refined effort than the explosively enthusiastic, comparatively bouncy Modern Vampires of the City; Contra explores the worlds beyond the island, the mornings after, the years to come and the loves lost. It's true that "Run" sounds like a bolt out of prison, but how much life is left in its traveling pair? The allusions to financial safety and nerves in that song and "Taxi Cab," also about a fracturing young relationship, betray an unresolved yearning to escape that has the curious air of being reported by someone who feels it's too late to really do it.
And if "Giving Up the Gun" -- a song that predates nearly every other Vampire Weekend track and appropriately enough speaks about technology and culture passing by a veteran soldier or rocker, another conflation shared with the Clash -- wanders through the end result of the very stasis Cut Copy would movingly sing about a year later on "Take Me Over," it also provides the optimist's way out if only through soul enrichment. Batmanglij contributed to the lyrics of "Diplomat's Son," which adds sexual subtext to an admiring fable of fellow redeemed coddled kid Joe Strummer; there's a moment on the bridge when Rostam takes over the vocal for the first time on a Vampire Weekend track, singing about falling for another man, and the words abruptly become clipped, confused but enraptured, a microcosm of the transformations happening across the record, including to the listener... and another source of mild optimism, but then again "it was '81." The obvious Bob Dylan quote springs to mind; maybe in all the freedom surrounding these guys as of Contra there's a sort of insurmountable limitation? Certainly the recognition of the pettiness of these painstakingly detailed interpersonal issues in the context of a world of Spanish bombs and drug-stabbing asks a kind of question about modern life that the band doesn't seem to seek to answer here.
Koenig and Batmanglij are the ideas men, but Vampire Weekend would be someone's indulgent side project without the rhythm section that makes them: bassist Chris Baio is unwavering throughout the record and drummer Chris Tomson is something of an unheralded treasure; how much of the sense of propulsion and grace on "Run" is down to his interplay with Rostam's keyboards and production? What would "Giving Up the Gun" be worth without him? (The end of "Giving Up the Gun," by the way, possesses some of the most beautiful writing, singing, playing of any modern rock song.) Vampire Weekend's a band, not a theory, and that beating heart is why this is such a pleasure, such a surprisingly uncomplicated pleasure, to listen to. And damn, I even like the last song now.