On Jan. 12, just shy of two years since the release of their debut, hipster pop group Vampire Weekend returned with “Contra,” a modest offering of 10 tracks. Early leaks of material led some listeners to warn of a coming sophomore slump, but after several listens through the album, which can currently be heard for free on the band’s website, this initial prognosis may have been premature.
The album starts off strong with “Horchata,” which showcases the group’s light and upbeat sound, built around the vaguely tropical melodies of a marimba in this song and playing to the strengths of singer Ezra Koenig’s vocal style. The group’s trademark quasi-intellectual lyrical style is also in full force – within seconds, the titular horchata has been rhymed with balaclava, and it just continues from there. The song takes every bit of what was likeable about Vampire Weekend’s debut and amplifies it here in one of the most addicting album openers in recent memory.
“Run” and “Giving Up the Gun,” which appear in the album’s midsection, continue the strengths of the album. “Run” features a more electronic sound than the rest of the group’s library, and this only serves to reinforce the charm of the song. “Giving Up the Gun” goes in the opposite direction – instead of relying on a bubbly sort of charm, the track is, by the group’s standards, remarkably subdued, as well as highly polished sounding. For those who aren’t fans of Vampire Weekend’s material, the song should prove to be more accessible and tolerable than other tracks on the album, and indeed, there is a hint of maturity not found in the insatiable pep that characterizes so much of “Contra.”
Unfortunately, that same unyielding energy that makes some songs so catchy occasionally turns on the band, making otherwise decent tracks irritating or unpleasant. The first such track to suffer in this way is “California English.” Koenig’s vocals are overlaid with effects which distract from what makes his singing enjoyable, and the energy becomes almost manic, leading to a song that feels rushed and unnecessarily so. If they slowed and toned down the pitch correction effects, the song might have been enjoyable, but as it is, it grates on the ears.
Then there is the misfortune that is “Diplomat’s Son,” which had the potential to be one of the album’s better pieces, featuring more of the quaint beeps and boops that made “Run” so much fun. Roughly two-thirds of the way through, however, the song breaks into an off-beat, off-time clankiness that distracts from the rest of the song, and the result is jarring and detrimental to the track as a whole.
Overall, “Contra” is an improvement over Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut – they take what made them unique and ran with it. Sounds are more varied, and every song has an energy to it, some more subdued than others, but each is brimming with it nonetheless. That energy can be detrimental at times, but the gold outweighs the coal, and if there is one thing the band has managed to avoid, it is that dreaded sophomore slump.