Vampire Weekend, Contra

Melissa Maerz

By Melissa Maerz

on 06.15.11 in Reviews

If you could run world music through Google Translator, it might come out sounding like Vampire Weekend. On their self-titled debut, these Columbia grads fused West African guitar, calypso, Congolese soukous and U.S. indie-rock for music as all-American as Taco Bell’s Mexican pizza. It was almost as popular, too: released at a time when globalism was riding the hipster zeitgeist — just as Urban Outfitters was selling out of its Palestinian kefiyah scarves and local music scenes were huddling under the one-world umbrella of MySpace and YouTube — the album sold strongly in the U.S. and went gold in the UK. This was a hallmark for Ivy League kids who read Stuff White People Like, the best collection of blue-eyed African-diaspora pop since Paul Simon’s Graceland.

A gloriously globetrotting follow-up every bit as impressive, and fun, as the Ivy Leaguers’ lauded debut

But, beyond Africa, there’s a much bigger world outside America’s dorm-room windows, and on their second album, the band’s listening to more of it. Contra begins with a harmonium drone inspired by Bollywood music, and it racks up frequent flier mileage from there, riffing off Jamaican dancehall (“Diplomat’s Son”), Brazilian baile funk (“Giving Up the Gun”) and Latin American reggaeton (“Run”), spouting off lingo they’ve picked up on the way. From the very first line — “In December, drinking horchata / I’d look psychotic in a balaclava” — it’s clear that these songs might not exist without Wikipedia access. But there’s plenty here that transcends any jetsetter-to-English dictionary: the propulsive kitchen-sink punk of “Cousins,” the soaring oh-oh harmonies of “California English,” the vivid sense of place in songs like “Taxi Cab”: “You were standing this close to me," sings Ezra Koening, "like the future was supposed to be / like the aisles of the grocery / in the blocks uptown.”

If that imagery recalls the Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket,” it’s no accident. Koening admits that “Taxi Cab” was inspired by a Joe Strummer quote, and like the Clash, Vampire Weekend obsess over the way class shapes one’s geopolitics: their songs are populated with artistocrats, diplomats’ sons, and people who “want good schools and friends with pools,” all thinking about (or trying not to think about) their responsibilities as citizens of Earth. What makes that obsession so moving is that it comes from a true desire to connect — with other cultures, with other people. Koening sings about Nicaraguan revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries on the shivery ballad “I Think Ur a Contra,” but he’s really just talking about love, how hard it is for each side to understand the other. Yes, under all those African Kalimba thumb-pianos and ten-centavo words, the dude’s just a traditional romantic. He might be pushing indie-rock to keep up with this ever-flattening planet, but he's pursuing an old-fashioned ideal: that a rock star’s job is to try as hard as possible to understand the world around him.