Album: Vampire Weekend, Contra (XL recordings)
A feast of Soweto shimmer and tropicalia translucence
Sunday 10 January 2010
The question of sincerity has always loomed medium-large over Vampire Weekend. Their shtick – preppy Manhattanites drawing inspiration from African music – always carried with it the uneasy feeling that we were all the victim of some massive jolly in-joke.
At its weakest (read: most novelty-ish) moments, their debut album sounded like the Strokes if they'd grown up listening to Graceland rather than Marquee Moon. At its strongest, however, it had an ersatz Soweto shimmer which was second hand, not third.
Some of that duality has carried over on to Contra (named, by the way, for a 1980s videogame rather than the US-backed Nicaraguan militia, although the nod to the Clash's Sandinista is surely deliberate). "White Sky", for one, could be a straight out-take from Paul Simon's album, unmoderated by any indie filter. The story, second time around, is that they've incorporated Latin American influences, thereby shifting, if one wishes to be facetiously cruel, from Um Bongo advert to Lilt advert.
The tropicalia kicks off immediately. "Horchata", the opening track and the teaser released online late last year, is named after a rice-based Mexican hangover-recovery drink and is a piece of agreeably benign calypso. "Holiday", meanwhile, is clearly informed by vintage ska.
Contra peaks, however, when they fuse the organic with the synthetic on the high-speed autotune madness of "California English". The beatless, impressionistic "I Think UR a Contra" (a Clash lyric, incidentally) is an intriguing glimpse of what Vampire Weekend can achieve when they drop the hyperactivity, zoom out and fade to soft focus. "Diplomat's Son" may or may not be another reference to Joe Strummer, or a self-aware acknowledgement of their own social class.
Indeed, Vampire Weekend are honest enough to set their lyrics in a milieu of aristocrats, private schools and snowboarding slopes. (On the other hand, they also mention "playing guitar in seedy clubs where the skinheads used to fight". That's what "social mobility" means nowadays.)
On balance, Contra is exuberant enough to make you forget most of your qualms about sincerity, and simply enjoy it.
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