[Rating: 4 stars]
Vampire Weekend are ripe for critical lynching. A welcome debut pulls indie rock out of its self-serious trenches and into the streets of Johannesburg, only to find their audience all but moved on when they stick to format two years later. As odd as it sounds, though, the Ivy League post-punks unwittingly wrote themselves into a corner.
Not long ago, their retrofitted Afro-pop – hand-slapped drums, xylophone splashes, breezy pan flutes, and call-and-response harmonies tucked into a preppy punk package – seemed to fill an all-but-forgotten niche that hadn’t been touched since mid-80s Peter Gabriel. With their ill-fated follow-up, Contra, it all just feels a little like second helpings. Now, flippant references to sipping horchatas on the opening track, text-speak in the title of “I Think U R A Contra” or the spastic pitch-correction in “California English” reek more of kitsch or hand-fed hipster-isms than the endearing innovation of their breakout. Maybe it’s unfairly preemptive, but it’s almost like we no longer need Vampire Weekend, at least not for their third-world crossbreeding. Not after The Very Best delivered the exotically alluring Warm Heart of Africa just a few months ago, Amadou & Mariam continue to churn out monumental odes to the Dark Continent one after another, and handfuls of Animal Collective acolytes crib dance-friendly tribal beats.
Then again, none of this has much to do with how damned enjoyable the music of Contra actually is. Far more than a companion piece of leftover ideas, the album is light, musically savvy and, for the most part, pulls off a thick dose of shamelessly sunny pop across all of its 10 tracks. “Cousins”‘ wiry guitars and syncopated yowls are flat-out quirky, but its verses rival Spoon’s high-brown funk while the chorus is an undeniable ear worm even beyond using repetition as a shallow ploy. “Diplomat’s Son” loses little of its charm across a steady six minutes, and “Run” and “Taxi Cab”‘s electro accents, sporadic percussion and tuxedo-clad piano arrangements feel as at home as they are disparate. If we don’t need albums like Contra another two years from now, we’re simply missing out.