There’s a very interesting feature on Vampire Weekend in last week’s New Yorker, which includes a brilliantly ridiculous encounter while the band are on tour in California. With a documentary crew in tow, Vampire Weekend set about interviewing a bunch of allegedly notable Californian musicians, and fetch up at the operations centre of Blink 182’s Tom De Longe.
They are greeted by De Longe, who’s shadowed by his own documentary crew. After the interview, De Longe takes them into a conference room and embarks on a determined sales pitch for “a prepackaged website” for bands. There are interventions from Blink 182 fans in a video chatroom, some earnest discussion about how bands can make money in “an industry that’s dying” and, eventually, some giggling.
You don’t learn a great deal about Vampire Weekend from the scene, though perhaps their slightly bemused response when confronted by the pragmatic realities of being in a rock band – however farcically expressed by De Longe – might provide some grist to their detractors. Why would Vampire Weekend worry about their long-term financial security, the case against would probably run, when they’re so lofty and privileged anyhow? A supposed sense of entitlement, notionally contrary to rock etiquette and beyond material earnings is, after all, one of the favourite ways to beat Ezra Koenig and his bandmates.
Another, though, is that they’re somehow “inauthentic” and exploitative of world music: Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber is quoted in the piece as calling them “Globetrotting sons of distinguished men clumsily exploring distant cultures, despite only being passively, naively invested.”
There are any numbers of ways to pick this one apart, of course, though Koenig has a good response himself. “For people who think that Vampire Weekend is making music that’s inauthentic to us, the question is ‘What is authentic to us?’ Is it the Rolling Stones – some version of black Southern music? There are probably a lot better reasons why you could say we’re not good.”
Very fair points, though Koenig may be being a little disingenuous here. Calling your album “Contra” and dropping in a bunch of Clash references is a typically canny way of playing with expectations and stereotypes: how else should a bunch of rich American boys respond to rebel rock than with an album named after Reagan-backed right-wingers? Vampire Weekend might be neither authentic nor inauthentic, but they’re certainly not averse to playing with those ideas, or with exploiting the tension between them – as they proved as far back as “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”.
The more positive way of looking at all this, perhaps, is to see their music as endemic of a healthy global swarming of pop culture (epitomised I suppose by people like MIA, who’s sampled here on “Diplomat’s Son”), where everything is up for grabs. If Vampire Weekend’s debut artfully located common ground between spindly indie rock and Township hi-life, “Contra” is a much more mixed-up, chaotic hybrid.
There’s a slight regret, for me at least, that they haven’t stuck to the zinging guitar pop, which they were so skilful at, though I can see how that might be something of a dead end. Instead, there are the Konono No 1 thumb-piano sounds I mentioned in the “Horchata” blog, stately ballads (“Taxi Cab” is especially superb, all discreet ghetto beats, classical piano runs and Koenig discovering a new tone of regret that confirms and expands upon his novelistic sensibilities), plenty of upgraded Paul Simon, and Lord knows what else (“Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, Brazilian baile funk… Sublime’s “40 Oz”, reggaeton, bachata, Bollywood… NYC 1983, dancehall and the Beastie Boys’ second album, “Paul’s Boutique,” glosses the press release, challengingly).
If there’s a Vampire Weekend precedent for a lot of this, it may be a technically enhanced version of “M79”, which probably emphasises Rostam Batmanglij’s developing production skills. “California English” could be cluttered and over-compensating, with Koenig’s vocals autotuned to the point of gibberish and the song evolving into a sort of manic chamber piece. But it’s a measure of the confidence with which they juggle influences and compose songs that it works just fine.
Evolution, in other ways, is simpler. “Contra” is often much slower and more elegant than its predecessor, or much faster: “Holiday”, for instance, has an air of well-tailored derangement, ostensibly a ska song which begins with the opening lines from “Matty Groves”, or at least the Fairport Convention version. A short album, but one which you can spend a pleasantly epic time looking for clues and references and random ideas, and I’ve barely even started on the lyrics…