Saturday, January 23, 2010

Contra


I guess that everyone latches on to the pop of their formative years: kids of the 60s grew up with the Beatles, in the 80s with utter rubbish, and I was a teenager in the Britpop years. I started to really like music around the time of Common People by Pulp, so the bands that I loved were their contemporaries: Blur, Super Furry Animals, Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers, Supergrass, Kula Shaker. Thank goodness that, even then, it was clear to me that Oasis was a musical dead-end...

Over the years, my tastes evolved and I realised that dance music wasn't as bad as I thought, moved on to hip hop, and of late have started to fill in some of the gaps and genres from the 60s to the present day. In this period, my love for late-90s indie faded away, with the Manics, Kula Shaker, Pulp, and Supergrass all disappearing from my radar. "Indie" had almost become a pejorative word by the mid 00s, with groups like the Kaiser Chiefs and Kasabian not doing much for the reputation of Britpop. The only bands of that era that I stuck with were Blur, Super Furry Animals, and Radiohead. Whilst they have very different styles and sounds, they share a common philosophy: don't stand still, try something new, change your sound, forget about targeting sales: if it is good they will come. And I kept coming.

But those 3 artists were pretty much as far as it went for me with "indie" music for years. Sure, there would be the odd album or song that came along that I liked (Arctic Monkeys and Elbow to name a couple), but Indie was not where it was at.

Over the last couple of years, though, there seems to have been a bit of a renaissance in creative indie, but this time on the other side of the Atlantic. Animal Collective, Panda Bear, Vampire Weekend, Alvin Band, and Fleet Foxes have all produced tremendous music recently, along with a bunch of other artists of intermittent brilliance (such as Passion Pit). Sure, my mind became less closed to all types of music during that period, but this wave of American bands revived my interest in the much-maligned indie genre.

At the start of last year, I fell in love with Animal Collective's Merryweather Post Pavilion; during the rest of the year I became more ambivalent about much of it. At the same time as 2009's indie masterpiece was falling out of favour, I was wondering why I had not paid more attention to 2008's by Vampire weekend. Sure, Vampire Weekend is a little pretentious, and if you scratch below the surface it is a little thin, but what a surface it is. Just over half an hour of pure fun is sprinkled with simple, hook-filled earworms. Once you have heard this album a few times you will constantly have tunes from it popping up in your head. It is difficult to name favourites, but Oxford Comma, M79, and Walcott are all songs that I come back to time and time again.

So, eventually, to what I was intending on talking about today: the second album by Vampire Weekend, Contra. Should they stick with the formula of the first or disappear up the arse of their own reputation and completely change style? Neither, actually. They have stuck with the short, snappy format (this one is positively epic at approaching 40 minutes) and the catchy hooks, but have grown into themselves a little and improved much of their sound. The production is excellent this time around, being both more subtle and more immediate in places; Ezra Koenig has taken his vocals up a notch (including some excellent falsetto); and they are prepared to be influenced by a wider range of genres. Yes, the modern take on Paul Simon's brand of world music is still here, but so is reggae, ska, electronic, and even dancehall. There is more variation on this album: California English features autotune vocals and is in complete contrast with pretty ballads like Taxi Cab and I Think Ur a Contra (surely one of the best final tracks of any album). Other songs include reggae breakdowns and samples from Radiohead and MIA. Taxi Cab is one of the better songs on the album and a great illustration of the more grown-up sound: lovely vocals and a wonderful piece of production (the strings are perfect) with a simple rhythm.

I had been holding off deciding my opinion until listening to it a few times, which was not too difficult considering the whole thing is half the length of some Orb songs. Is it better than the first album? That's a tough call, as Vampire Weekend was sneaking towards being one of my favourite albums ever. Contra does, however, clearly have more substance, has a pop sensibility (not a bad thing in my mind), and is more considered than Vampire Weekend. All I know is that it is Contra tunes that I am waking up with in my head at the moment.

You can listen to the whole album on the band's website.

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