Well-heeled indie darlings Vampire Weekend stake out new territory on their sophomore effort, Contra.
Author K. Leander Williams Photography Steven Brahms
THE FOUR IVY LEAGUERS in Vampire Weekend know people want to dislike them. They’re making the rock star thing look too easy. A year before their self-titled debut was released in 2008, when they were fresh out of Columbia University, they’d already become favorites of the blogosphere. With the Vampires’ peach-fuzzed faces and penchant for V-neck sweaters, it’s not hard to see why more than one culture watcher predicted public opinion would turn against the band’s brainy, danceable, panglobal rock.
“It gets complicated when people read about you before they actually hear you,” says keyboardist/singer Rostam Batmanglij. “With the first record, we realized that sometimes even the favorable stuff written about us had an odd cast, kind of ironic or detached.” Even so, the backlash never really arrived, and judging by the giddy anticipation of Contra, the band’s follow-up, it never will.
On the new record, VW again combines sunny pop with sinewy rhythmic and melodic flourishes culled from abroad, most notably the U.K. and Africa. Where the first disc pondered things like etiquette and mansard roofs, the opening track on Contra rhymes “horchata,” a popular Latin American beverage, with “balaclava.” They somehow draw upon even more global influences without sacrificing their Manhattan breeziness.
On the surface, at least, much of the credit for VW’s sonic signature goes to singer-frontman Ezra Koenig, whose reedy voice is a marvel. Though often thin as paper, it’s equipped with a catalog of hefty hollers, all of which offset Batmanglij’s perfectly calibrated string arrangements. Recently, however, a respected rapper suggested in the New York Times that it’s actually bassist Chris Baio’s rubbery lines that pull in fans from unexpected quarters. “He got into us after hearing us on the iPod of his manager’s son,” remembers Batmanglij. Listeners may not be as excited about that endorsement by Ghostface Killah, nor will they likely untangle the disc’s various influences, from Bollywood to the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band.
A collection of references and brainy tricks is always impressive, but a great record connects with an audience on an altogether more visceral level—i.e., it rocks—and in that sense, Contra more than qualifies.
K. LEANDER WILLIAMS will always cherish his Brooklyn breeziness.
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