Vampire Weekend sure knows how to kick-start a new year. Just as the band’s self-titled debut opened 2008 on a high-note, here comes Contra, its luminous and instantly lovable follow-up. Still stuck in a January funk? Feeling the new-decade doldrums? Well, stop reading those damn ’09 best-of lists and decade recaps, and get with this present-day classic.
The conceit of Vampire Weekend—four Ivy League grads who meld African rhythms with Western pop and classical music (“Upper West Side Soweto,” as they call it)—sounds iffy in theory. It would be in execution, too, if the band didn’t work the contrast so well. Over music inspired by Congolese soukous, they sing about Cape Cod and campus life while dressed in madras shirts and top-siders. It says everything about Vampire Weekend that, while Pitchfork hailed the authenticity of its debut (“Paul Simon never sounded this exuberant”), Stuff White People Like author Christian Lander still called them the world’s “whitest band.”
Given that Vampire Weekend was largely a collection of singles posted online during the band’s formative years, Contra qualifies as their first proper album, which might explain how it bypasses the whole “sophomore slump” business. While some tracks (“California English,” “Cousins”) mirror the high-octane rave-ups that distinguished the debut, others like “White Sky” and “Give Up the Gun” expand on the VW sound with synth-pop and house beats. (“Diplomat’s Son” even co-opts an M.I.A. sample.) Elsewhere, band member and producer Rostam Batmanglij throws in everything from kalimba thumb pianos to harpsichords and 8-bit keyboards.
All of which would merely add up to top-notch ear candy were it not for Vampire Weekend’s frontman, Ezra Koenig, who makes Contra feel as good as it sounds. Whether he’s waxing absurd (“Contra Costa, Contra Mundum, contradict what I say/Living like the French Connection, but we’ll die in LA”) or holding back (“That night I smoked a joint/With my best friend/We found ourselves in bed/When I woke up he was gone”), his winsome voice gives this short, sweet, near-perfect album a heart.
Now, if only we could convince these guys to return every January instead of every other one …