The curse of the hype band is the ever-looming sophomore slump. A bright and catchy debut catches the critic’s ear, but when number two comes around, the band is old hat and getting enough minor radio play that most self-respecting music snobs are ready to toss them out with the bathwater. Some Loud Thunder, anyone?
Facing an already harsh backlash from their West African/Upper East Side-influenced self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend seemed poised to drop the ball with Contra. The first album was full of energy, lo-fi-ish production, simple, yet smart arrangements, and just enough foray into world music to be a patronizing affectation.
And yet with all the comparisons the band got to Paul Simon and Gossip Girl, Contra has proved that the band sees themselves closer to (something that I’ve always said) the Talking Heads. With Contra, the band has expanded to include dance rhythms, reggae chords, bigger electronics, and a fuller production and range of songs as a whole; they went from ’77 to Speaking In Tongues. They’re a smart New York band with big ideas and punkish roots ready to tackle the world of pop radio.
So if Vampire Weekend is The Talking Heads, then “Horchata” is their “Burning Down the House.” It’s all there — the keyboard leads, the abnormal beat, the high-ranged vocal melody, and polish of a great pop-producer. So why isn’t the dang thing burning up alternative radio stations?
Well, it’s not that easy. Vampire Weekend’s blend of African guitars, frenzied drumming, New England references, and chamber pop string arrangements on their self-titled debut was a charming, energized, scrappy effort from a young band. Contra, on the other hand, seems calculated, cold, and pre-planned from the start: we’ll take over the world with our rough and tumble shifty footed debut so that we can pave the way for the squeaky clean expansive follow up.
And while I doubt that’s the case, it’s hard trying to take the band’s rootsy-insistence seriously when Ezra Koenig is on the cover of Paste wearing a post-Victorian plaid suit with a Gothic Lolita Santigold. What’s the showmanship and where’s the show?
When I had the chance to speak with bass player Chris Something Or Other, he seemed genuinely excited about the album and like a regular dude in a band who really wants to make great music with his friends and play great shows for lots of people. And I don’t doubt that he’s earnest in his intentions. Who would turn down the chance to work with a studio budget and all the time you need for your platinum-tempting second album?
But I find there’s a good deal of character that’s been lost in the process, and I want them to be able to find it again — get rid of the schtick, strap on those guitars, hit the road, and ditch the autotune as well as the M.I.A. samples. The band’s live-in-studio Daytrotter sessions show that they can play their songs with aplomb and with excitement; let’s see some of that turn up for record number three.
For now, I’ll just keep playing Contra on occasion, when the occasional mood hits me, and I’m not at my TV playing Contra III: The Alien Wars.
Gray Area Score: The Bleak Horizon As The Sun Sets On A Cold Winter’s Day