It seems likely that the level of excitement you’re experiencing about Vampire Weekend’s sophomore full-length is inversely proportional to your opinion of the major indie rock trends of 2009. There was the whole chillwave thing, of course, with a ton of bands making ostensibly dreamy, keyboard-heavy pop music that occasionally just sounded cold and robotic. Then there was glow-fi, which I guess is sort of the same thing: hazy, basically. 2009 was covered in an impenetrable layer of haze and characterized by a sense of detachment that seemed either cool and subversive, like that first wave of lo-fi back in the 90s, or desperate and lazy—an empoweringly tossed-off fuck-you or well thought-out cover up for not actually having very much to say, or for not having a particularly interesting perspective. Personality was hard to find in 2009, either because it was buried beneath all that haze, or because it simply wasn’t there.
And now here we have Contra and its opening lines, sung in a crystal-clear voice, accompanied by a gently tapped marimba: “In December drinking Horchata/ I’d look psychotic in a balaclava.” “December” is pronounced so that it rhymes with “horchata” and “balaclava.” “Psychotic” gets a hard T. It might seem pretentious, it might seem nonsensical, or it might seem right off the bat like a song whose narrator just hates the winter. Either way, it’s something, and you can fucking hear it.
Over the course of the record, what you’ll hear is basically more of what you heard last time. It’s more influenced by non-white-boy indie rock than their first record. It’s more pre-occupied with class issues. Singer Ezra Koenig has grown confident enough in his vocals that he’s more willing to squeak and squeal whenever it seems right. Basically, either they never got around to reading the complaints made about their debut, or they just decided to ignore them. And as a result, your opinion of the band in 2010 will most likely be directly proportional to your opinion of them in 2008. If they bothered you then, you’ll probably want to cause physical harm to them now. But if you found their self-titled debut refreshing and interesting and, above all else, stacked with a set of melodies so effective it was ridiculous, well, then you’ll probably like Contra even more.
To anyone who signs on for a close listen, there are some subtle but important differences this time around. Musically, things are more complicated. The guitar plays a far less central role than it did previously, giving way to a larger assortment of keyboards and strings that help make their experiments with styles as disparate as baile funk, Afro-pop and calypso sound even richer. They’ve gotten better at their instruments too, and while, yes, I know, “dude, they fucking shred” is not going to win me any arguments, they pull off some impressive technical stuff here. The drums have grown even more melodic, Rostam’s arrangements have gotten more intricate and detailed, and Ezra’s managed to achieve one of the more instantly recognizable guitar tone of anyone this side of, you know, John Mayer.