January 22nd, 2010


Contra takes it NXTLVL

Hey, there's this band called Vampire Weekend, and they're actually pretty good! Oh, you knew about them already? I see, I see. Yes, I'm always a bit late picking up on these things. Now I think about it, I was vaguely aware that Contra, their new album, isn't their first release. There was a bit of excitement a couple of years ago around their debut, wasn't there? In fact, it even reached Click Opera, didn't it? It's all coming back to me now. Rostam from Vampire Weekend sent me their first album, and I wrote a piece entitled Fan mail to the future.

Now, that particular month (February 2008) you weren't allowed to be lukewarm about Vampire Weekend -- you were either supposed to love them or hate them with a passion. So my response to their debut album got relayed by various music publications to an astounded, incensed world as Momus to Vampire Weekend: Bugger Off!.

In fact, I was far from saying "bugger off!" What I actually said was much more muted and tentative: "I haven't really had my Vampire Weekend moment yet. They've sent me their album, and I've listened to it, and I can hear the basic appeal -- the directness, the economy of means, the well-written lyrics, the happy feel. I get a weird sense that there are possibilities in this music ("Wow, pop can do this!"), and yet the possibilities are all in the past. Taken a bit further, this bit could become Talking Heads, this bit could become The Beat, this bit The Police, and this bit Prefab Sprout... Perhaps Vampire Weekend will work with a producer who gives them enough experimental edge to make my penny drop."

After reading this, Rostam wrote me back: "Perhaps in a weird way I expected as much, but in fact it's inspiring because it means things aren't nxtlvl enough on our end..." Unlike the music press, he got exactly what I meant. Pop music has to keep taking things to the next level. Otherwise it begins to die.

My own "next level" with Vampire Weekend was meeting vocalist / lyricist Ezra Koenig in New York on May 18th, 2009. Ezra chose a vegetarian Indian restaurant called Saravana Bhavan, where we each dipped a big dosa into a delicious array of little sauce dishes. Ezra told me he was thinking of calling the next Vampire Weekend album "Contra" and asked what my immediate associations with the word were. I said: Oliver North (Iran-Contra), The Clash (Sandinista!), Hegel (the Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis, which would mean their third album would have to be Synthesis) and the idea of the internet troll or contrarian. The following week several Vampire Weekends got the table of honour at the three-hour Momuthon concert I played at the Highline Ballroom.

And now Contra is out. I don't have a copy yet, but the tracks I've heard on YouTube -- the ones splashed across this page -- bode very well indeed. I think my favourite is the most experimental. This is called California English:

And this is California English Part 2:

The "disorienting autotune" effect reminds me of an early version of my song Zanzibar, A Canterbury Tale, but VW have a more zingy chorus and better production. In fact, it's the production on this album that excites me most. There's an excellent use of space, an avoidance of rock sludge, some wonderfully crunchy percussion rolls which nevertheless drop away to leave some good space when they're finished, and a nice early 80s synth bass sound which reminds me of The Passage:

There are still, of course, reference points and influences. From Afropop, from Paul Simon, from The Police, from Two Tone ska, from Elvis Costello circa Armed Forces, from Talking Heads. But my fuzzy feeling this time is much warmer, and not just because of Ezra's charm offensive. This sounds to me like a band taking old things and making them new, making them brashly fresh. It's rather like seeing the way Japanese culture takes things from the West and recompiles them just askew enough to make them fresh, appealingly strange, and unmistakably Japanese.

To my ears, from what I've heard so far, Contra is more original and innovative than the first release, without losing the infectious, accessible pop edge. Vampire Weekend did indeed take things NXTLVL.