I don’t believe Americans invented the ill-informed, knee-jerk reaction, but I know we’ve perfected it. Ask yourself if people who have the time to go to D.C. for a week and wave (often misspelled) signs are actually working enough to make enough money to be “Taxed Enough Already.” Just a for-instance. Politics is an easy field to which I can point and say, “Behold, y’all: ignorance abounds.” But fans of music are not immune, as I have found out on more than one occasion. Sometimes, if you don’t like a band that other people like, they’ll hate you for it. I don’t understand this myself, but it happens. And sometimes music fans like to react to things before they’ve heard them. I didn’t want to write too much about how people hate Vampire Weekend for their Ivy-League pedigree, their elitist references to “kefir” (goes good with arugala, Tea Partiers), or their globe-trotting sound because every Vampire Weekend review discusses that shit ad nauseum. But every review discusses that shit because there are more than a few people whose knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss Vampire Weekend as privileged posers, allowing their perception of the band as people to color their perception of the band as musicians. (It should be noted that plenty of great musicians are/were horrible people. Ask John Lennon’s kids what kind of father he was. Ask Joey Ramone what kind of friend Johnny Ramone was*. And so on.)
But here’s the thing: I didn’t want to like Vampire Weekend at first either. I felt snob-guilt for liking “A-Punk,” which I heard for the first time (gasp!) on a non-NPR-affiliated radio station. And I still listen to their first album and it’s still fun and interesting. And I wanted to cut myself off there and resist the urge to purchase Contra on the day it came out (I did read an NPR review of the album before I bought it. Cred restored? I don’t care). But who was I kidding?
I just can’t quit Vampire Weekend, to borrow a phrase from a vastly overrated film. The reason I can’t is because Vampire Weekend makes very – very – compelling pop music. That is due in no small part to the arranging abilities of a multi-instrumentalist whom I affectionately nicknamed Batman when discussing their first album. Batman punctuates Vampire Weekend’s hyper pop music with flourishes of wind and string instruments, while Ezra Koenig yelps his sometimes-clever lyrics (he’s no Isaac Brock, but he scores his share of points) and strums his usually-clean guitar. Their sound is not like the sound of other popular acts and I believe they come by their world-music inclinations honestly. So I like them and I like Contra and if you write a review where you say it’s the worst piece of shit you’ve ever heard, I promise I won’t post comments on your blog telling you to shoot yourself or trying to simultaneously abuse you and the English language. The reason I won’t do that is simple: I’m a fucking adult (looking at you -but certainly not all of you – fans of Portugal. The Man).
But enough peripheral bullshit. Let’s talk about Contra, can we? The songs are not drastically different from the songs on Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut – which is to say, the songs are good. There are one or two slower, more ballady numbers, and Auto-tune rears its ugly head on “California English”, much to my dismay. While I understand the aesthetic choice and there is compelling evidence that Ezra Koenig doesn’t need Auto-tune, I cannot state clearly enough that I loathe Auto-tune at all times under all circumstances. I think it sounds like shit. If Joe Strummer came back to life and told me that Auto-tune cures cancer, AIDS, poverty, and stupidity all at the same time, I would counter that it still sounds like shit and has no fucking business in my music. Ever. Also, Kanye West used Auto-tune on his entire last album and he doesn’t seem to be less stupid from where I sit. My gripe about the Auto-tune is smaller than it sounds, though – it (just barely) doesn’t ruin “California English” and certainly doesn’t ruin the rest of the album. Contra is similar to Vampire Weekend, but Contra is musically smarter. This is analogous to how I feel being newly 30 – it’s like being 20 again, but I’m smarter. I hope.
The only real question I have for Vampire Weekend is, can they pull this music off live? I might have to see them at Coachella to find out, but it looks like I’m headed back there this year, so that won’t be a problem. It doesn’t sound to me like Koenig sings anything particularly challenging for his vocal range, so what I’ll be looking for his how they pull off all of the nifty little instrumental flourishes. I predict heavy sequencing.
The bottom line is, if you liked the first Vampire Weekend record, Contra will probably also please you. If you didn’t like their debut, you’re probably not going to find much to change your mind here. If you don’t like Vampire Weekend because of where they’re from or what college they attended, or how “privileged”** you think they are, I think you’re cheating yourself out of some great pop music, but that’s your business.
*A bit of explanation for those of you who have, for some reason, not seen The End of the Century: Johnny’s wife was, at one time Joey Ramone’s girlfriend. Johnny Ramone wooed her away from Joey who, by way of passive aggressive vengeance, wrote “The KKK Took My Baby Away”, ostensibly about his guitarist Johnny. I honestly don’t know how the Ramones stayed together as long as they did, given how little they seemed to like each other.
**Anybody who gets to make music for a living is privileged, as is anyone who can go to the occasional (or frequent) concert. If you have time to troll the internet to defend the bands you love and dis the bands you hate, you are also privileged. To my knowledge, the dudes in Vampire Weekend are not the sons of cable TV moguls or oil barons or former pop stars. Even if the guys in Vampire Weekend were born rich, it makes no sense to hate them for it. They clearly used their privilege to hone what is, all else aside, remarkable musical talent. On the other hand, it does make sense to hate Paris Hilton because she’s famous for being born rich and has used her privilege to simultaneously attract new and exotic STDs, launch an abortive acting career, and launch an even more abortive (if possible) musical “career.”