Locked Up Like a Trophy: Vampire Weekend’s Contra Turns 10
A look back at the most underrated album of the most hyped band of the last decade
Vampire Weekend rose in such an unassuming way into their role as the Only Band That Matters for the Era When Bands No Longer Matter by playing the straight men to their own flamboyant musical ambitions.
Now a father, Ezra Koenig’s perpetually deer-caught-in-the-headlights-of-Mrs.-Robinson-trying-to-seduce-him expression is a compelling foil to his trolling, which is sincere, heartfelt, and more musical than just about anyone else carrying the same instruments.
Take “White Sky,” one of his loveliest melodies, augmented by Rostam Batmanglij’s carousel of up-and-down synth scales and crunchy percussion, building and building until it lets loose with an unspooling yelp so boyish and pre-adult and note-perfect it could only evoke Graceland and its various Township pilferees. Whatever you felt about their class privilege (Batmanglij, the premier architect of this band, is neither white nor straight) on their more easily definable eponymous debut only mattered less to the new cavalcade of boundless ideas they just wanted to push forward on follow-up Contra.
VIDEO: Vampire Weekend “Giving Up The Gun”
Once it was established that this “blog band” wasn’t going the way of Voxtrot or what have you, the most modestly crafty rock act in the universe mastered the stealthbrag: RZA and Lil Jon in the “Giving Up the Gun” video (a nice little in-joke, too bad they didn’t get ~*~Peter Gabriel too~*~). They were one of the first rock bands to embrace Auto-Tune (“California English”) at a time when that was cause for a headline in itself. But they also doubled down on their use of Afropop signatures, not just in guitar lines but that synth programming on “White Sky,” and played these sounds as aggressively and disjointedly as the Minutemen on “Cousins.”
More weirdly, Contra is almost underrated now because these leaps forward didn’t make for some giant obvious story. Just exciting students growing into teachers, as if R.E.M. skipped straight from Murmur to Automatic for the People or something. Of course, that it was the best rock album of 2010 makes more sense when put that way, though the analogy of their R.E.M. to Arcade Fire’s U2 shortchanges all the ways the band, particularly on this album, made rock’n’roll smarter and cleverer, imbuing it with M.I.A. samples and plenty of non-rock sounds. (And language: balaclava, horchata, “96 pt. futura.”)
TL;DR: Vampire Weekend gets off most on putting things into rock songs that haven’t been there before. Carob rice cakes, Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, the United Colors of Benetton, politics that I’m in denial may strive towards the middle but certainly long for a bygone ideal of not talking past each other. (Vampire Weekend being not very good at politics is a blessing and curse; their excellent 2019 album Father of the Bride was more undercut than ever by their failure to embrace any emotions below the head, particularly of the chest and stomach.)
With the benefit of retrospect, the two reasons Contra, their least flawed (but not best) album, overcomes this problem, are 1) Obama made it easier to fantasize about this sort of civil-discourse fantasy fiction and 2) there’s chest and stomach all over this thing. Koenig singing “Diplomat’s Son” about gay love over an M.I.A. sample doesn’t make him less white and straight but it makes his art more representative and feeling. More literally, drummer Chris Tomson bludgeons “Giving Up the Gun” with such conviction that it might as well be their greatest song for sheer anthemic force — not a thing you’d associate with Vampire Weekend but hey, “Diplomat’s Son” is also about Joe Strummer according to Genius — and a bridge plucked from the heavens.
These are epic anomalies though; as with the debut, Contra’s musical heart is in sub-three-minute new wave songs like “Holiday” and “California English” performed agile and sparse with the frenetic rhythm demanded of the post-Animal Collective decade this album helped usher in. Thanks to Batmanglij and Tomson, it’s their most musically rewarding work, with the expansive climax of “Run” and misshapen snare pattern of “Cousins” and the aforementioned vocal spirals of “White Sky” all special favorites.
The intellectual heart is in “Horchata,” which I haven’t mentioned yet because who knew what to make of it in 2009. On the private form for Pitchfork’s short-lived ForkTracks server at the time, I briefly hated it and millionaire website founder Ryan Schreiber was quick to love it, then we both switched, whatever that means. It had a lot of big words, a lot of squeaky high notes that missed their landing, and was generally seen as a double-down for the haters or a mission statement back then. Now it just sounds like the intro to a classic album I love to hear almost anytime.
AUDIO: Vampire Weekend Contra (full album)
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