Vampire Weekend, Contra (XL Recordings, 2010)

They may be enjoying quite a bit of popularity these days -- their new album Contra debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts -- but Vampire Weekend remain something of an enigma. On one hand, their grasp of African and Caribbean rhythms is strong, and their ability to put these rhythms into a form that appeals to both pop and indie audiences is undeniable. On the other hand, when your image of white punk/reggae bands is defined by groups like The Clash, the multiple references in Vampire Weekend lyrics to their affluent Ivy League lifestyle seem jarring. The quartet are what they are, though, and Contra has more than enough quality to justify the attention of even the most militant listener.

Musically speaking, Contra picks up more or less where the band's self-titled debut left off. The new album has a bit more electronic effects and programming, but not in an intrusive way. Instead, Ezra Koenig, Rotsam Batmanglij, Chris Baio, and Christopher Tomson provide the same combination of tight musicianship and pop sensibility with a global perspective that made their first album work. The best track is the first single "Cousins," a sped-up, Africanized variant on Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up." "Holiday" and "Giving Up the Gun" are also strong upbeat numbers, and "Diplomat's Son" is some smooth reggae.

I could see why Contra could generate some sort of backlash, though. Some people accused Paul Simon of "cultural rape" when he recorded Graceland; I can only imagine what those people think about Vampire Weekend. This would be unfortunate, as the band are ultimately guilty of nothing more than creating catchy music with more imaginative (and arguably higher-quality) sources of inspiration than you generally hear on a pop recording. Vampire Weekend have a fun sound, and Contra improves on the band's first recording.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott


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