Like the first album, Contra was produced by keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and is the realization of a whole and unique musical vision that sees the band stretching out and adding new textures, instrumentation, and rhythms into their sound.Primarily recorded in New York with a springtime sojourn to Mexico, Contra feels altogether fresh, joyous, and like nothing else but is immediately recognizable as the sound of Vampire Weekend.
Pitchfork Review :
Vampire Weekend's second album starts with "Horchata", ostensibly a punching bag for people who didn't like their first one. Singer Ezra Koenig rhymes "horchata" with "balaclava", while keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij arranges the song around the polite plinks of marimbas. It's a sweatless calypso, buttoned-up and breezy. So, of course, haters will still find plenty to hate about Contra, and they'll hate it with vigor. Meanwhile, Vampire Weekend sound like they've fallen in love with what they started and are hugging it tight without shame or apology.
Considering the ferocious objections to Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut, "Horchata", and the rest of Contra, is brave music. It's like they've spent the past two years building a bionic version of the band-- not only brighter and tighter, but weirder. The group nurtures its eccentricities and the result is a record full of them: Ezra's stretchy, dynamic voice; Rostam's fussy but colorful arrangements, packed with lots of orchestral confetti; and a sound that spans an increasingly multicultural array of genres, from American synth-pop to reggae, ska, calypso and Afro-pop. By comparison, Vampire Weekend sounds monochromatic and restrained.
In terms of vanguard indie bands, this makes them more digestible than Dirty Projectors but also more exciting than the relentlessly sophisticated Grizzly Bear. But Vampire Weekend also outsold both those bands. Their music was optioned for major-motion-picture soundtracks. They played Letterman, and Letterman didn't passively mock them. Ezra Koenig sang with Fucked Up. Later, they were in Vogue. They're a cross-cultural, cross-generational new indie band. Contra's most sellable song, "Giving Up the Gun", is more polished than Vampire Weekend's, but its many stranger ones are more imaginative than anything on their debut. Considering Contra is only their second album, they're in an enviable position: Semi-popular and sincerely idiosyncratic.
Contra works because of its juxtapositions-- of natural sounds to processed ones; of manners to tantrums; of party rhythms to deadpan poetry; of black music to white music. "Diplomat's Son" samples M.I.A. and features an 8-bit interpolation of Toots and the Maytals' "Pressure Drop" amidst characters getting stoned and falling asleep in unfamiliar houses. Almost every song on the album is this rich and this delirious. And for listeners with an aversion to richness or delirium, the band still plays sweet melodies with a light touch.
Vampire Weekend's willingness to take cues from a variety of styles makes them thoughtful musicians, but it's the styles they draw from that makes them contemporary. Ezra Koenig once said that his clean guitar tone was a reaction to being force-fed grunge as a preteen, but he was also entering puberty when No Doubt was entering the charts, and when ska-- a sound that originated in Jamaica and became working-class British music in the 80s-- became a renewed phenomenon at teen centers across the New York metro area. Rostam Batmanglij's side project, Discovery, was an R&B album made on synths and sequencers-- which, by 2009, was another synonym for "indie rock." Adopting what they adopt and rejecting what they reject might make Vampire Weekend look like pretenders, but they're not-- they're reactionaries.
Then again, these contradictions, passions, and superficialities are what the band seems to be thinking about-- and what Koenig has gotten sharper about writing into his lyrics. These lines don't scan as being about privilege or money, but about people struggling with their social status, something that everyone-- college-educated or not, rich or poor, people who hate Vampire Weekend and people who don't-- does at some point. (Though, as Pitchfork editor Scott Plagenhoef pointed out in 2008, the band's detractors probably wouldn't be nearly as hung up on Ezra's lyrics if the people in Vampire Weekend's songs-- or the people in Vampire Weekend-- seemed poor.)
Ezra isn't writing about college or Northeastern geography anymore (terrific), but the loud nouns are still there. Take "California English": "Sweet carob rice cakes, you don't care how the sweets taste/ Fake Philly cheesesteak but you use real toothpaste/ 'Cause if that Tom's don't work, if it just makes you worse/ Would you still lose all of your faith in the good earth?" In other words, what if all the products and symbols that gave your life meaning-- and status-- fell away? What if you replaced the organic toothpaste with Colgate? (Which still "says something" about you, namely "I don't have the time, inclination, or money to give a shit about toothpaste.") Would life still look as rosy? Or, roughly, "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?"
These aren't ad-copy platitudes about the irrelevance of image-- if image didn't exist, he'd have less to write about. His point is simple: Image is important, but don't think yours is better than anyone else's, especially if it's constructed by things you buy. If Koenig has pity, it's for people who don't accept who they are off the runway, like the guy in "Taxi Cab": "When the taxi door was open wide, I pretended I was horrified, by the uniform and gloves outside of the courtyard gate"-- the key word being "pretended." For a band as superficially calculating and antiseptic as Vampire Weekend, the message is a challenge to accept that these guys-- these very polite young east-coasters who grew up with ska, punk, and African pop-- are exactly who they say they are.
The album ends with "Diplomat's Son" and "I Think Ur a Contra", its two most musically scattered and lyrically opaque songs. "Diplomat's Son"-- of the aforementioned M.I.A. sample and reggae breakdown-- is six minutes long; "Contra" fades to the sound of hand drums and acoustic guitars. On an album marked by ambitious, knotty lyrics, Koenig ends with the lines, "Never pick sides, never choose between two, but I just wanted you, I just wanted you." Commitment. Surprising, but it looks beautiful on them.
— Mike Powell, January 11, 2010