Vampire Weekend are the latest college sensation to parlay their limited campus success into an actual record deal, though they exhibit a far greater degree of artistic pretension than contemporaries like The Strokes who were eager to shed the trappings of intellectualism and their patrician background in favor of embracing rock music at its most basic and primitive.
All the same, when one subjects Vampire Weekend to closer scrutiny it becomes evident that at least a measure of their deeper aspirations are purely illusory. Despite the band's frequent attempts at elevated discourse through their lyrics (which, incidentally, tend to prove pretentious and inane), there's a certain palpable innocence inherent to their music, a disarming youthful exuberance that clashes with their masquerade as an esoteric and sophisticated ensemble.
There's nothing wrong with this aspect of the band's sound, but it's clearly not what Vampire Weekend are trying to achieve on their eponymous full-length debut. At times the group almost attempt to transparently broadcast precisely what their artistic agenda consists of, like when they overtly invoke Peter Gabriel in their lyrics; this is an inapt instance of namedropping, however, as the erstwhile Genesis frontman fashioned rhythmically complex, meticulously crafted world music married to the fundamentals of rock, while Vampire Weekend produce music with a foundation of simple, almost rudimentary catchy melodies with some Afro-pop embellishments to add a somewhat exotic flavor to the mix.
Thus it's difficult to take the world music, Afro-pop side of the band terribly seriously. Even when Vampire Weekend add a string section to the arrangements it feels as if the band are trying to attribute an extra layer of depth to their work that simply isn't there.
While artistic ambition is always commendable it's a pity that the band aren't content with simply sticking to their strengths. The group have an impressive facility for generating quality pop hooks, particularly in the context of highly catchy vocal melodies. From the irresistible (if profanity-laden) Oxford Comma to the stellar I Stand Corrected, Vampire Weekend produce a plethora of eminently catchy pop songs; these tracks are uniformly enhanced by the band's intriguing Afro-pop overtones, but all the same it seems as if the group and critics alike exaggerate the importance of these world-beat influences, treating them as the core of the sound as opposed to added elements that ameliorate an already impressive product.
Campus offers perhaps the embodiment of the band's true skills, a pure, infectious pop song that doesn't seem to envision a higher calling for itself beyond entertaining the listener with catchy hooks. It's hardly the best track on the album, but nonetheless it amply demonstrates Vampire Weekend's mastery over basic pop. Most importantly the song displays that its lack of greater depth is nothing to be ashamed of, as intellectual pretensions are of no value without a strong, well-established template.
Thus Vampire Weekend have created an impressive album that may not be what they had in mind, but is none the weaker for it. Beyond the attempts at erudition and experimentalism the band have produced a work that is, at heart, a simple, charming pop album, and will remain a simple, charming pop album no matter how many layers of Afro-pop or would-be eloquent philosophizing are added to it.
On their sophomore effort, Vampire Weekend continue to suffer from the erroneous notion that they're more than a pop group. Much like the band's debut, Contra is an impressive showcase for the group's prodigious pop songwriting gifts. Unfortunately, Vampire Weekend remain convinced that their skills extend well beyond fashioning creative hooks and catchy melodies, and thus feel that their talents demand material that transcends mere 'pop' status.
Therefore the band's Achilles heel is, once more, their artistic ambition. When Vampire Weekend stray from their 'pop' comfort zone the results are invariably disastrous. As was the case on their debut, the band's lyrics are their most egregious offense. Coming across as the stereotypical conceited and pretentious college students that they doubtless were but a few years ago, their lyrics are marked by endless failed attempts at wit, erudition and sophistication. Be it the attempts at satire and social consciousness on I Think UR A Contra or the forays into the realm of would-be insightful political commentary on Holiday, Vampire Weekend simply embarrass themselves with each successive verse, penning poetry that might have passed for 'precocious' were they but a few years younger.
The band's misguided and inappropriate artistic inclinations aren't confined to their lyrics, but that certainly is the department in which their wrongheaded conduct is most apparent. When one begins to examine that group's musical ambitions he enters territory that is fraught with contradictions and complications. The fact of the matter is that the band's musical ambition is both one of their greatest assets and one of their most destructive liabilities.
There is ultimately, however, a rather clear-cut pattern when it comes to Vampire Weekend's positive and negative ambitions. When the band uses their ambition in the service of pop music the results are frequently sublime. Vampire Weekend have always favored elaborate, intricate instrumentation, and thus many of the arrangements on Contra betray a good deal of intelligence and craftsmanship.
The problems arise when the band direct their ambitions toward the goal of producing music that is more than pop music. When Vampire Weekend pursue their misbegotten artistic aspirations the resultant product is frequently adversely affected. Whether it be intrusive world-beat elements hijacking the flow of a melody (as on Horchata) or invidious vocal encoding marring an otherwise well-written composition (as on California English), time and again Vampire Weekend succumb to their self-indulgent streak and corrupt their own creations.
These world-beat and vocal encoding offenses are actually amongst the least irksome of the band's musical transgressions. While I stated that the band's elaborate arrangements can be a positive component of their music, the over-abused cliché 'too much of a good thing' is quite apt in this particular instance. On Contra, Vampire Weekend often oversaturate their compositions with too many orchestral flourishes. These bloated arrangements frequently obstruct the melodies they accompany, resulting in what should be basic, entertaining pop songs being sabotaged by an odious influx of wave after wave of extraneous instrumentation.
When Vampire Weekend exercise moderation their intricate arrangements complement their melodies beautifully. Unfortunately, the band are far too concerned with elevating their music above the 'mere' level of pop to practice any sort of restraint, and their works suffer accordingly.
Fortunately, these are merely impediments that prevent the album from fulfilling the band's over-inflated ambitions. The fact of the matter is that the songwriting remains sufficiently strong that Contra is enjoyable for its entire duration.
While not quite capable of first-rate pop, Vampire Weekend are nonetheless highly accomplished in the hooks department, conjuring complex yet catchy vocal melodies with a consistency that amply demonstrates the extent of their songwriting gifts.
From the infectious pop rocker Cousins to the wonderful (if flawed) opener Horchata, Contra boasts numerous classics. The vocal melodies of tracks like Diplomat's Son and Run, while somewhat marred by a certain smugness, still rank amongst the best of the contemporary pop scene, and when the band establishes a solid pop foundation and augments it with adroit, clever-yet-restrained arrangements the results are truly unforgettable.
Thus Contra is a superb pop album for as long as it remembers that it's a pop album. Even when Vampire Weekend lose sight of their strengths, however, their uncanny pop acumen is usually enough to salvage whatever's been marred by their ambitious excesses, and the band's fundamental charm is simply too disarming to not make one forgive them for their inherent vices.