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New York prepsters stick to their Paul Simon-goes-indie formula on successful second album

Rating: 8 / 10

Ed Power, 15 Jan 2010

First album hype is practically compulsory this side of the Atlantic. Speaking to Hot Press recently Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe confessed he feared his band’s career was over when their debut LP failed to elicit the customary outpourings of hyperventilated critical gush. “We didn’t get to tour the world or play big venues. And ninety percent of bands who don’t achieve that, never get to make a second record.”

Americans, though, have never quite done things that way. Indeed, when US record labels are seeking to break new artists through buzz alone, they immediately relocate their bright young things to fad-obsessed Blighty and let nature takes its course. Perhaps that’s why Vampire Weekend, one of the first US acts to receive a proper, let’s-splash-them-on-the-cover-of-a-magazine-before-they’ve-put-a-record-out hype campaign, have found themselves at the sharp end of a slow-burn backlash.

No sooner had they sent Europe into a tizzy with 2007’s afro-beat soaked Vampire Weekend, than folks back home were looking askance at their cricket sweaters and country-club trousers. What gave a bunch of upper middle class kids the right to appropriate the music of the African tin-shack ghetto? ran the standard criticism. Something about these prepsters, with their excellent clothes, casual virtuosity and, was that a glimmer of smugness?, lodged in the craw.

Whether out of naivety, bloody-mindedness or haughty indifference, the Ivy Leaguers have given the haters plenty of ammo with Contra, a record which cleaves to the classic second album tradition of sounding like its predecessor, only better. Consider the opening track, ‘Horchata’, wherein frontman Ezra Koenig rhymes ‘horchata’ with ‘Arancita’ and ‘Masada’. I had to look all those words up in a dictionary. Damn you Vampire Weekend, you made me feel stoopid.

That being said, they do start to win you around eventually. Certainly, Contra – the name is an homage to The Clash’s Sandinista! and not intended as a commentary on Central American politics – is a beefier affair than its predecessor. Those jangly-verging-on-effete guitars? They’ve been working out and put on a bit of muscle. Koenig’s freshman squeak? It’s deeper, more self-assured. And the Afro-Caribbean grooves – which despite their vehement protests carry a undeniable whiff of Paul Simon – now rumble past with a palpable air of joy. Much of the starch and over-thought eclecticism of Vampire Weekend has been sanded away and, even in their country club pants, these boys can actually get their funk on.

Still, there are moments when they sound as if they’re idly flipping through the world music section of iTunes. A by-the-numbers dance hall rumble underpins ‘Diplomat’s Son’; West African guitars predictably slather ‘White Sky’; the laboured ‘Holiday’ flirts with ‘white dudes make reggae song’ self-parody.

Yet there are flashes of evolution too. On ‘Taxi Cab’, Philip Glass-style minimalism is channelled on harpsichord and piano; ‘I Think Ur A Contra’ unfolds against an ambient hush that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Warp compilation. And ‘California English’ is sprayed in so much AutoTune you almost expect Kanye West to gatecrash the album. In the end, Vampire Weekend do enough to just about win you over.

Rating: 8 / 10
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