Sounds like Paul Simon but modern... it's really lovely.
It has been two years since ‘Vampire Weekend’ – that eponymous debut packed with high speed hum-in-your-head-all-day pop songs – and A-Punk sounds as fresh now as it did then.
But on ‘Contra’ they have matured and embraced an array of influences including dancehall, reggae, soukous and even the odd M.I.A sample – and while the sound of 2008 was all about these guys, The Wombats and Mystery Jets, since then Vampire Weekend have grown up, been on a gap year, and come back with a whole load of souvenirs and cultural ideas of their own to throw in the mix.
Having met while studying at an Ivy-League College and starting the group in their senior year, their sound could be firmly aligned with the indie-pop flag that The Drums are flying today. And on the debut, ethnic musical influence was more a flavour, a sort of aftertaste that came with the college-boy jangly guitar sounds and catchy vocals, whereas on ‘Contra’ it serves as the backbone, integrating drums and borrowed melodies and instruments from African music effortlessly. It’s basically a Vampire Weekendian take on Paul Simon’s anthropological ‘Graceland’ during the 80s but void of obvious colonial awareness (there’s no tribal chorus about diamonds, for example).
Ethnographing within pop music is nothing new (especially recently) but explicitly referencing Simon in this way says a lot about the (international) cultural crossroads we are at today, especially in comparison. Over twenty years ago, Simon’s primitive and spiritual study peered in, experimented with the sounds of dialectical cultures with strong tones and contrasting colours. However, today, with the explosion of the internet and mass-media culture, the world is now a much smaller place culturally – and this is what sounds out on ‘Contra’. Socially, culturally (and therefore musically) there are no longer such stark divides within our day-to-day experiences and here the sound of Africa is as much a Western thing as a man in a Taxi Cab or being Californian English. That’s the charm of this album. Everyday life bleeds with Afro influence pretty much seamlessly.
And all this says a lot of what was once sectioned as ‘World Music’. Previously inhabiting a small section at the back of high-street record stores and with independent record labels like Puntumayo dominating a market mainly consisting of compilations by artists that were only really famous within their own countries, ethnic transposition is now the tool at the disposal of some of the West’s most interesting and revered artists (see Fool’s Gold, Foreign Born, Extra Golden, Michael Cleis). There was a time when festivals such as WOMAD were perceived as no more than a middle-aged hippie hangout for Mum and Dad, not really the place for the trendies, but in recent years aspects of these sounds have increasing featured on mainstream line ups and dripped down into Western popular music, the sort championed by high-profile artists such as Damon Albarn, Jools Holland and Ian Brown.
With festivals like Lake of Stars in Malawi and Amadou & Mariam having supported Blur on their two reunion gigs and Coldplay’s Viva la Vida Tour, Vampire Weekend are now at the forefront, encapsulating these rhythms, instruments and sounds for an indie-pop audience. Add to this other current artists, such as Tune-Yards and her heavy mining of African sounds on debut Bird-Brains and Surprise Hotel offering soundtrack to the summer in November.
Vampire Weekend have not lost their preppy edge, though, and, like Tune-Yards, they take all these influences and combine them with their own style to create a new breed of pop music. Even the title of the album ‘Contra’ hints heavily at this global identity by taking its name from the opposing Nicaraguan political party also referenced on the influential 80s album ‘Sandinista!’ by The Clash.
In a modern context, VW are achieving what Paul Simon did with Graceland with an added dash of Toto, but they are making it cool and bringing it up-to-date with refreshingly upbeat, nonsensical lyrics and hyper-speed songs like Cousins. White Sky contains Super Mario bleeps and Holiday’s optimism makes you want to leap out of bed and embrace even the gloomiest of days. And in California English lead singer Ezra Koenig flirts with vocal distortion using an Auto Tune effect in this punchy dancehall inspired song.
Taxi Cab is a great example of the influence classical music has on their work with beautiful piano and strings and speckled with shimmery guitar. Run brings that ever so fashionable nostalgic twist to proceedings with a drum machine and synths, while the highlight Giving up the Gun sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place on an 80s brat pack sound track. This is considered, refined pop music.
Also, Diplomat’s Son samples M.I.A and sections sound like retro video games all mixed up with “cha cha chas” that could have been pulled straight from Daddy Yankees Latino reggeaton hit Gasolina – filling your imagination with carnival colours. Then, saving the best till last I Think ur A Contra reveals uncharted depths and maturity to Koenig with a melancholic song about how heartbreak makes you grow up, and grow up they certainly have. ‘Contra’ is altogether smoother and tighter, their use of percussion making their borrowing from other cultures seem even more sincere.
Although it is impeccably produced, it remains a complex album that takes some patience to discover, but give it the time it deserves and you will find Vampire Weekend are still the ultimate colourful tonic to any January blues.