Am I alone in thinking that it's insane that Contra debuted at number 1 on the Billboard charts? Who is rushing out to buy albums in January, anyway? Well, OK, as weird as the situation may be, it's understandable. Vampire Weekend's debut was an addictive indie pop affair that borrowed bits from reggae and world music via Africa. Paul Simon's Graceland was a big touchpoint for most people, though honestly I hear that comparison much more strongly on Contra. Mostly I'm just surprised that a band on an indie label could become so popular and inspire such loyalty after only one release. Even the fairly similar Shins took two albums and prominent placement in a popular movie to get this huge...
The biggest difference from Vampire Weekend to Contra is more about the instruments featured than any kind of stylistic shifts or songwriting approach alteration. Contra maintains the same startlingly high level of memorable and catchy songs as the band's debut, but this time out the band has mostly put down the guitars and picked up keyboards, drum machines, and even what is either a vocoder or auto-tuning on 'California English.' At first this change really turned me off. For various reasons, I don't really like synth-pop, not to mention the kind of 80s production where drums always sound muffled and synthetic and the bass has that rounded-but-flat tone to it. What's more, Contra really does bring the Graceland comparisons into sharp relief: tracks like 'Taxi Cab' and 'White Sky' have the kind of fingertapping, pop and lock rapid fire guitar and bass work that made that album so distinctive.
Once I embraced the change, however, I found Contra to be an excellent release, and a worthy follow-up to Vampire Weekend. Petty and temporary though this may be, my only complaint is that Vampire Weekend once again released such an obvious summer album in the cold grip of January. The effervescent bounce of 'Holiday' doesn't seem quite right when you're sitting in your car in the morning, shivering and sipping coffee from a travel mug. But I digress. The more I've listened to Contra, the more I find myself wondering if it's actually better than their debut. The album closer 'I Think Ur A Contra' alone displays a great deal of growth and maturity in songwriting; with its low piano notes and ominous tone it kind of reminds me of 'Those To Come' by the Shins.
Yes, I may actually like this one more than their debut. I suppose I'll reserve judgment for my usual year end listmaking, but keeping in mind that I'm not the hugest fan of either synth-pop or Graceland, it should be pretty telling that I'm already considering it.