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Review: Contra

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

Vampire Weekend blasted onto the pop scene in 2008 with their catchy single A-Punk. It became one of those overplayed tunes that could have been good except there was just too much of it in too many places. The band is in the indie-pop genre and deserves credit for its ability to capture the masses without forgoing that raw sophistication typical of Indie bands.

It would be easy to assume, as I initially did, that Vampire Weekend are posers and cultural appropriators. Their ethnic influences are justified by the fact that they are somewhat a culturally diverse band. With Rostam Batmanglij as lead songwriter, Vampire Weekend seems in touch their musical background and does not only consume musical tradition but dares to reinvent it.

Although they were already popular, their style was different from what mass consumers were used to. Though not so different that they were unpalatable. Their first self-titled album was something of a rookie attempt at something that could have gone either way.

Their second album Contra, released on my birthday on 11 January 2010 went further. Contra could refer to the video game, the album by The Clash, or the Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries.

The band who were formed in 2006 in New York released Contra on XL Recordings to which they are signed. The album reached number one on the Billboard charts. While they were featured on mainstream shows like Letterman and SNL, they also opened for respectable indie acts such as The Shins.

Ezra Koenig is the lead singer and guitarist. Rostam Batmanglij comes in on the keyboard, backing vocals, and songwriting. Chris Tomson is on percussion and Chris Baio is on bass guitar.

Lyrically, the album is explosive. In keeping with the title, the songs contain lyrics with the theme of opposition. With his lyrics, Ezra Koenig magically combines sex with social involvement. As in the rapturous track White Sky where he describes walking around the MoMA in New York: ‘The house that modern art built/ The elderly sales clerk won't eye us with suspicion'. Or ‘We mostly work to live, until we live to work /…. honey with you is the only honest way to go’ in the tragic, yet cheerful track Run.

Diplomat’s Son is by far the best track on the album. With its tireless build-ups and spikes, it is rhythmic and serene simultaneously. The audial influences include a sample from MIA. The narrative is exquisite, stretching toward a tale of homosexual love.

One of the best things about this album is simply enough, all of the contradictions. The sounds are popular yet quirky; natural yet synthetic; danceable yet profound; ethnic yet white.

They borrow from a vast array of musical cultures including calypso, reggae, ska, Afro-pop, and synth. Batmanglij finds fantastic ways of sampling styles and assembling them in an unashamedly elaborate manner. It is one of the most colorful listening experiences I have had in ages and it continues to titillate my wits.

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