Especially among our nor’eastern Ivy League peers, expectations have been absurdly high for Vampire Weekend’s sophomore album, “Contra.” I’ll be honest — the advent season, for me, did not end on Dec. 25 with the birth of the messiah, but on Jan. 12, the day “Contra” was released. It is virtually impossible for any musicians, even ones as talented as the quartet from Columbia University, to live up to the hype.
With this knowledge, I donned my headphones and poised my fingers to type a review about how “Contra” is to “Vampire Weekend” what “Star Wars” I, II and III were to the originals. Pitiable.
But, like the first album, “Contra” effortlessly stole my heart, in Vampire Weekend’s characteristically understated way.
The opening track lulls you into a shimmering, tropical summer daze, invoking the popular Latin American beverage horchata and the Italian Sanpellegrino Aranciata. “Horchata,” although a departure from the first album in some ways (guitars are absent), is certainly the Vampire Weekend we have come to know and love, replete with Koenig’s unique vocal modulations throughout the verse.
And then they begin to show off a previously unknown side in the track “White Sky.” It’s a little more electronic, a little more refined. There are fewer of the quirky squeaks and endearing off-rhythm beats that characterized the previous album, and it’s instantly catchy.
But familiarity returns in “White Sky’s” soaring, joyful and abstract-syllabic chorus. The melody recalls “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” and, indirectly, Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”
But then auto-tune? From Vampire Weekend? Who ever thought that Koenig, known for his effortlessly breezy falsettos, would step on the heavily criticized crutch used by the ever-controversial Kanye West? The robotronic vocals jolt the album out of the sun-drenched haze it has seductively cast.
The theme across all ten tracks is that of bringing together opposites — harsh, electronically produced rhythm tracks, for example, are layered over a military-style string arrangement to form the foundations for the album’s lullaby, “Taxi Cab.” Throughout, “Contra” is successful in being just as varied as “Vampire Weekend,” but the band has matured and tightened up their sound. The loveable quirks of the previous album — its spontaneous and unrehearsed vibe — are absent, but in their place, Vampire Weekend develops further some of the characteristics of their sound — signatures like world-beats, lively bass and floating falsettos.
Chris Baio’s bouncing bass, an instrument seldom acknowledged in rock music, drives this album forward in its interplay with the world-beat rhythms. And the rhythms themselves — arguably what sets Vampire Weekend apart from the musical morass of our age — are intricate and syncopated Afro-beats that come off as spontaneous, but are executed even more precisely than on the previous album.
The only time “Contra” really fails is when it tries too hard.
The reason for all the hype around Vampire Weekend — why fans love them obsessively and haters are so … hateful — is that they make everything look so easy. The moment “Vampire Weekend” was released, the band was catapulted to stardom by music blogs, a gig on “Saturday Night Live” months after the album’s release, appearances on Conan O’Brien and Letterman … the list goes on.
So when “Contra” sounds forced, it falls short. “Cousins,” for example, is a confused, eclectic and disorienting blur of strobe-like rhythmic effects quite unlike Vampire Weekend’s style and outside their well-honed talents.
But on the whole, “Contra” gives the impression that Vampire Weekend could care less what their fans expect. They created the album they wanted to, tying together influences from around the world and across times and styles. It exudes a “make of it what you will” vibe; I know I’m going to make it the soundtrack to my next convertible-down roadtrip along the coast of California.