Album: Vampire Weekend * * * *
Vampire Weekend made lots of friends in 2008 with a self-titled debut album heavily inspired by Paul Simon's seminal Graceland album and Talking Heads' heady excursions into world music. "Upper West Side Soweto" is how the band's frontman Ezra Koenig memorably put it at the time.
Privately schooled urbane Manhattanites, their songs drew on subjects rarely, if ever, found in popular music -- obscure details of English grammar and French architecture among them.
They have wasted little time in following up that album and are as comfortable in their collective preppy skin as before. The cover features an all-American blonde resplendent in Ralph Lauren's iconic polo shirt, while one of the songs is called Diplomat's Son.
Contra may not be as immediate as its predecessor was, but Koenig's gift for fashioning smart pop songs remains gloriously intact. So, too, is the band's fixation with Africa's rich music tradition and now that's augmented here with Jamaican dancehall, Californian ska-punk and the liberal use of strings.
In lesser hands, fusing US indie with all these influences would be an unmitigated mess. Not so here. The melange of sounds and styles never seems gimmicky or smacks of showing-off -- the different sources enhance the listening experience.
That's evident right from the off with the giddy canter of Horchata, the first song I know of to be inspired by the hot Mexican beverage of the same name. It's all very Vampire Weekend.
California English is an insidiously catchy number that marries Auto-Tune vocals with violins, while the jaunty Holiday benefits from the sparkling production. The latter also boasts the sort of lyrics that on paper look horribly pretentious and yet work in the context of the song. "A vegetarian since the invasion/ She'd never seen the word 'bombs' blown up to 96 point Futura." It takes a certain genius to make a song referencing a typeface not sound awful.
The aforementioned Diplomat's Son revels in its reggae groove, while the syntax-challenged (surprising, considering the obsessions of the band) I Think Ur A Contra pays playful homage to The Clash when Koenig rhymes "rock 'n' roll" with "complete control" (the title of a Clash song).
Presumably, the name of the album doffs its hat to Joe Strummer too. The Clash's fourth album was called Sandinista!, after the Nicaraguan left wingers of the 70s and 80s, and students of the central American country don't need me to tell them that Contras were the rebel group that opposed them.
A knowing joke or a cerebral statement from one of the most erudite bands on the planet? You decide.
Burn it: Diplomat's Son; Horchata; I Think Ur A Contra