One of the many bands of the indie movement to be plagued with ridiculous amounts of hype (before the release of their debut, no less), Vampire Weekend was able to meet the impossibly high expectations better than many of their contemporaries with their 2008 self titled record. While it was fairly derivative in spots, it was very well written, and had a unique worldbeat fusion that gave its indie pop sound a very interesting flavor. Two years later, they have released their long-awaited sophomore effort, and not only does it live up to its predecessor, the band has taken a bold step forward and run with the worldbeat aspect that made their debut so special, while maintaining not only their basic sound, but keeping their pop sensibility as well.
Lead single Cousins serves as a great sample of Contra; it's got a standard rock format but loaded with so many different ideas it can't help but charm. The frenzied guitars are outstanding, but what really steals the proverbial show is the rhythm section. The drums and bass simply DO NOT QUIT on this song. Its instrumentation could well be the least broad out of any track on the album, but it still sounds every bit as exotic, and the energy is downright captivating.
On a number of tracks, they sound a lot like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel jamming with an indie band, particularly on the trio of White Sky, Holiday, and California English (HAH! I used an oxford comma, Vampire Weekend! SUCK ON THAT). Ezra Koenig's higher sounding vocals are more controlled than flailing, the unwaveringly upbeat tempos rest upon laid back sounding yet somewhat complicated beats, there's a slightly tropical sound which comes across as strangely authentic (with English's random autotune, no less), and overall the afro-meets-synth sound is very well implemented. Clever percussion and keyboards are implemented throughout as well, which is immediately noticeable on opener Horchata as well as the gentle, piano driven Taxi Cab.
Even at Contra's most aggressive, the songs sound smooth and controlled. Run's alternating gallop and offbeat, stuttering drums seem to take the lead over the synths and guitars, and the complex relationships therein are fascinating. There's also the fast, surprisingly danceable Giving Up the Gun (which will no doubt spawn some awesome dance remixes), which retains all the creativity, and even the very core sound, of Contra's other nine tracks, but with a pleasantly unexpected kick that shows off a bit more of the diversity they've grown into.
Vampire Weekend's debut had some great ideas, but they weren't given the imagination that they've received here. Contra is a very lively affair, as well as brisk; the ten songs breeze by in just over half an hour. It's not only a flat-out triumph musically, but lyrically compelling as well, a big theme challenging that perhaps problems that seem more trivial when compared to the world's more pressing issues are still just those - problems. All in all, a fantastic record from a band proving to be growing into themselves far faster and more gracefully than expected.