Hype has always been a two-edged sword, but in the 21st century it’s become more like a flamethrower. For the mainstream, it’s up to record labels, agents, managers and other parties with vested interests to build the buzz for a new artist; in the indie-rock world, thanks to the Internet, fans do the heavy lifting. The buzz about a newly arrived band starts to hum in real time, as the trend-spotters rush to the blogs to extol its virtues (or, more likely, stake early discovery claims). In this accelerated burn cycle, by the time its debut album appears, a group can be several Next Big Things behind the curve, with the disillusioned blograts scornfully asserting that the interest was just a lot of hype.
The world-wide wow started for Vampire Weekend right after the band formed at Columbia University in 2006. Less than two years later, Spin declared the fledgling group “The Year’s Best New Band (Already?)” and featured the preppy-looking foursome on its cover — a first for an artist or band without a debut album in the racks yet. Even the description the band members offered for their music in interviews — “Upper West Side Soweto” — smacked of snobbish pretension, and seemed to mark Vampire Weekend as indie-rock’s multi-culti-conscious flavor of the month.
Now, with the buzz quieted down enough to actually hear the album, what is a listener to make of Vampire Weekend? Here’s one recommendation: make the most of it. Not many artists release a debut album as fully realized and winning as this one. On paper, the band’s hybrid of indie-rock, chamber music and African pop may look like a self-consciously hip mash-up. Indeed, in the single “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig seems to offer a pre-emptive apologia: “But this feels so unnatural [to] Peter Gabriel too.” Surprisingly, though, nothing about the band’s music feels that way; in song after song, the quartet’s genre-blending feels completely seamless. Drummer Christopher Tomson and bassist Chris Baio drive the songs with crisp, tricky (but never overly busy or effete) rhythms and cleanly syncopated basslines, while guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij provides most of the instrumental color (along with production and string arrangements). Lilting guitars and a ska-flavored beat give way to multi-layered chamberlins on “A-Punk”; a harpsichord and string quartet brush up against African-inspired chants on “M79”; amusement-park calliopes churn underneath the vocal melody in “Mansard Roof.”
Koenig’s voice has a boyish, optimistic charm that completes the musical package. His lyrics are sure to send the band’s webcentric fans Googling the references: “Dress yourself in bleeding Madras / Charm your way across the Khyber Pass,” he encourages in “M79.” But he writes with a keen eye for detail; even at their most hyper-literate, his lyrics never feel like the work of a showoff. (Well, almost never: in “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” he does rhyme “Louis Vuitton” with “Benetton” and “reggaeton” — before asking, “Is your bed made / Is your sweater on?”) More often than not, his lyrics and delivery, together with the upbeat, winsome music, are disarming. “You’ve been checking on my facts / And I admit I have been lax,” he sings in “I Stand Corrected.” The narrator of “Campus” pines for the object of a crush with, “I see you / You’re walking ‘cross the campus / Cruel professor, studying romances / How am I supposed to pretend / I never want to see you again?” That’s the real key to Vampire Weekend’s success: beyond all the clever genre-mixing and youthful charm (and all the hype), the band delivers a collection of songs that hold up well to repeated listening, and still sound fresh when hearing them for the first time in months — and long after the blogardiers have moved on. Hype can make or break any band’s career, but it can’t damage genuinely good songs.
Vampire Weekend begins Contra at its most pretentious. In the vibraphone-driven opening track, Koenig rhymes “horchata” with “balaclava,” “Masada” and “Aranciata.” Granted, if you’re going to name a song after a Mexican drink, you may as well include some exotic rhymes in it. But he sings these lyrics with a put-on accent — a gaffe he didn’t commit anywhere on the debut. Things pick up from there, though, as Koenig rebounds to the top of his lyrical game, and the quartet comes through with another batch of great melodies. A theme weaves through the songs: the compromises and disillusionment that await college students after graduation. The carefree protagonist of “Holiday” is confronted with harsh realities: “She’d never seen the word ‘bombs’ blown up to 96-point Futura / She’d never seen an AK / In a yellowy day-glo display.” “Run” describes the stress of post-graduate life in the big city: “Every dollar counts, and every morning hurts / We mostly work to live, until we live to work…Where a little bit of competition means so much / And a little bit of change is all your little fingers touch.” In the driving synth-pop number “Giving Up the Gun,” Koenig addresses a friend who gave up his music: “I heard you play guitar down at a seedy bar / Where all the skinheads fight / Your Tokugawa smile and your garbage style / Used to save the night.” (It wouldn’t be Vampire Weekend without a few Google-ready references.) And in the album-closing “I Think Ur a Contra,” he sings to a former object of desire: “You wanted good schools / And friends with pools…You wanted rock ‘n’ roll / Complete control…But I just wanted you.” Batmanglij applies a few more modern touches to the arrangements and production, including synthesizers and electronic percussion on several tracks, a sample from M.I.A.’s “Hussel” on “Diplomat’s Son” and even a touch of Auto-Tune on Koenig’s voice in “California English.” Baio and Tomson play with more muscle throughout, and the overall sound has more density (and perhaps a little less breathing room). But for the most part, Vampire Weekend holds onto the genre-blending style it had on the debut.