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Review: Vampire Weekend, ‘Contra’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 11, 2010
Label: XL

They make Pavement seem like poor folks. They make Steely Dan sound like simps. Sharpen up those Google-search fingers, everybody, Vampire Weekend are back in town: “In December, drinking horchata / I’d look psychotic in a balaclava,” frontman Ezra Koenig sings on Contra. Later he rhymes “horchata” with “Aranciata,” then “Masada.” That Ezra, he so smart.

Not just smart, true too! A ruling-class dude would look silly enjoying his leisure-hour drink dressed like a Chechen terrorist, and that elaborate image gets at the heart of Vampire Weekend’s weird appeal. The “Upper West Side Soweto” referenced on their shockingly successful 2008 debut juxtaposed images of Ivy entitlement with African and West Indian dance grooves, spoofing “world music” while giving us some of the best global white-guy pop since Paul Simon’s Graceland. It’s music about the contradictions of neo-liberalism that might infiltrate Chelsea Clinton’s Nano, the same way Simon might’ve mellowed her parents’ living room decades ago.

Contra sticks with this theme, suggesting what happens when vaguely determined scions leave school and ambivalently inherit the earth. Beyond riffing on the Clash’s Sandinista!, the title hints at backroom political deals, power grids, and secret wars. The mirror-play lyrical images allude to “the nation business,” real aristocrats’ and diplomats’ sons, and an “AK in a yellow Day-Glo display” in a banana republic by the beach. Koenig’s kids want “good schools and friends with pools.” They stock up on Richard Serra art and rock Wolfords through Midtown mornings; their “birthright is interest,” yet they’re always catching their reflections in 45th-floor windows and pausing to wonder if they’re maximizing every second of their imperious early 20s. It’s Death Cab for Cutie’s transitory romanticism grafted onto the lives of first-year Swiss debt arbitrageurs and junior CIA spooks.

Vampire Weekend’s early songs were so blog-hyped that their debut seemed like a collection of singles and some other stuff, the way records were made in the early ’60s. Contra is more fully formed, a ’70s-style record-type record. It’s their version of the Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, the disc on which they see how well their gold-star ideas move.

And VW work Contra‘s themes with a chic sleekness. The booming, lilting “Giving Up the Gun” isn’t about revolution and strife, it’s about indie rock; the gun in question is a guitar. The breakdown on “Horchata” is The Lion King via minimalist composer Steve Reich. “White Sky” mixes Anglophile synths with guitars that recall Thomas Mapfumo, Zimbabwe’s Bob Marley — get it, England used to own Zimbabwe! Most pointedly, the “Contra” in question is a girl that Ezra can’t get his head around. It’s a brilliant metaphor for a guy who portrays himself as in this world, but not entirely of it, a soulful rebel incognito among the cold-eyed players. But Vampire Weekend aren’t just good at being smart, they’re smart at being good.

Koenig’s ease and grace with a melody borders on Paul McCartney country. He can make the line “There’s a car all black with diplomatic plates” feel like sugar on your tongue. The balance of classical, rock, and world instrumentation, cagey rhythms, and stunning prettiness isn’t just architecturally resplendent, it’s reassuringly sweet and strangely moving. Suddenly, the emotional space occupied by the status-wielding assholes in these songs starts to feel like home. It’s icky, but admit it: Once again, you’re their sucker.