Pre-Screening: Vampire Weekend's Contra

Album: Contra
Artist: Vampire Weekend
Label: XL
Rating: 7.5

As the first big album of 2010, Vampire Weekend's Contra has a lot of expectations levied on it. Coupled with the already high hopes that would follow a debut like 2008's self-titled effort, it's almost staggering what Contra has to live up to. So with that in mind, perhaps that's why the album seems a bit underwhelming in comparison. Or perhaps that's why it fails to really perform to the standards set by its predecessor-- an over-confidence in its abilities. Siding with the ladder, the album also holds a fair share of strengths, even in spite of these shortcomings.

Immediately, one sees there is a distinct change in Vampire Weekend's approach on Contra, in comparison to their debut. The album harps on less afro-pop and squeaky clean indie sounds. Instead, we see more experimentation and daring, and a definitive California influence on songs like "Horchata" and "Run," that team with a tropical and carefree vibe. Contra does what it can to distance the band from the prep school imagery which gained them equal amounts of acclaim and scorn just two years ago, and at times, the results are encouragingly positive. It takes some daring to go outside of your comfort zone, and suddenly start incorporating synths, auto-tune and brass, so for that, the group should be commended. But of course, it's not all positive either.

The same aforementioned chances the band took are also a lot of what dooms them here too. Leaving their comfort zone as many times as the band tries to do on Contra results in confusion for listeners, and a sense of over-reaching on their part. "Giving Up the Gun" sounds like something more suited to Discovery than Vampire Weekend, as the synthy dance track bounces around unlike completely separate of the rest of the album, residing in some kind of distant, sing-songy dream land. This, along with the next track, "Diplomat's Son" seem to lack the substance of the album's singles, and anything the band has done before this point. Of course, this could be used as the central issue of the record as a whole-- ten tracks that barely fit together due to their stark differences in style and texture, so much so that they hardly create the cogency an album should comprise.

Contra's saving grace actually ends up being its singles, all of which we've at least gotten glimpses of prior to the album's release. "Horchata" properly embraces the album's tropical intentions, while still remaining true to the playful, coy nature of Vampire Weekend's original sound. Same could be said for "White Sky," though with the appearance of a more airy approach, still manages that space properly to create a scenic pop joy ride. Then there's "Cousins." If the band truly wanted to try and remake itself with this record, this was the song to do it with. Brash, bold and possessing an edge unlike anything else in the band's short catalogue, the punk-influenced track would have been the perfect tone setter. Yet, instead, it just rests as a footnote of what could have been. A single resounding track over a body of work that alternates between slightly enthusiastic and downright depressing.

Going into this album, Vampire Weekend was known for their cocky and slightly humorous delivery, interwoven with upbeat pop sensibilities. What they gave us here sort of acted to the contrary of that, which is why many listeners are not as thrilled as they'd hoped to be. As mentioned earlier, expectations played a large role in peoples' reception of Contra, for this writer included. However, bar set high or not, the fundamental differences, and lack of real flow do a bit to harm the album, which actually possesses a quality collection of individual musical arrangements otherwise. Combined with a surprising void of energy though, the album becomes a series of hits and misses that could have been so much more.

Best Track: "Cousins"

[Previously on Animal Noises: Best of 2009: Most Anticipated Albums of 2010]

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