Album review: Vampire Weekend's 'Contra'
A lover of words in all their ambiguity, Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig makes for an unlikely sloganeer. "I see a mansard roof through the trees," he sang at the top of this New York City quartet's 2008 debut, "I see a salty message written in the eaves."
Nonetheless, here's Koenig near the end of "Contra," Vampire Weekend's highly anticipated sophomore disc out Tuesday: "Never pick sides / Never choose between two." Coming from a guy whose idea of a catchy rhyme is "horchata" and "balaclava," that's basically Rage Against the Machine territory.
Listening to this tidy but complicated 10-song set, you can understand what drove Koenig to such uncharacteristic clarity: "Contra" captures the sound of a band attempting (and very often succeeding) to find a space between opposing impulses -- between, as the singer puts it in "I Think UR a Contra," the album's closing ballad, "rock and roll" and "complete control."
Koenig and his fellow record-nerd bandmates, who play an album-release show Tuesday at the Henry Fonda Theater, borrow more liberally here than they did last time. "White Sky" rides a bouncy synth-pop groove, while "Diplomat's Son" features a sample from a song by M.I.A. In "California English" Koenig runs his vocals through Auto-Tune, the processing software favored by hip-hop and R&B acts. And "Run" is a percolating ska number with tinny dancehall horns.
Beneath the Wes Anderson-style production design, though, "Contra" reveals a newly sentimental streak, as Koenig grapples with the kinds of topics rock 'n' roll was invented to address: growing up, moving away, falling in (and out) of love. It's music that balances with uncommon elegance the desire to observe with the need to engage.
"When I was 17 I had wrists like steel," Koenig sings in "Giving Up the Gun." He needn't worry -- his serve has never been stronger.
-- Mikael WoodVampire Weekend
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
Photo: Vampire Weekend at Coachella in 2008. Credit: Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times