Detail of the cover illustration of Planet Stories magazine issue #10, 1955
I'm a little late to the party on 2010's first big indie release, so I'll just summarize my feelings about Contra: it's an easy album to get to know and like, it aims for an admirable amount of variety for a second album, and it's a little on the short side. Vampire Weekend throw down the gauntlet with their much-quoted opening lyric to "Horchata" - actually, each of the song's rhymes for the title word is a cringe-inducer. I know what the band was going for with those opening lines, but I still have to grit my teeth to get through that first verse - it's worth it, though, because the chorus of "Horchata" blooms into a technicolor explosion of rhythms and layered vocals. Contra is a conventional album in some ways, but it features some quick turns and dynamic shifts, and that's when it's at its best. The clean guitar lines and minimal pop melodies of the band's debut have been replaced with a more varied approach that works more often than it doesn't.
Contra really only has two down-tempo songs ("Taxi Cab" and "I Think Ur a Contra") and they're both excellent, so it's kinda weird that the album has been accused of being sluggish in the momentum department. I think it's because the album's songs often match a rushed-sounding arrangement with a very lackadaisical vocal performance from Ezra Koenig - he only really seems to push the vocals at all on "California English" and "Cousins", but that's fine with me. I like the way he croons and sighs over the songs' driving rhythms. In fact, the run of uptempo songs after the album's near-perfect first half is the album's low point for me. "Run" doesn't employ its dissonant synths quite right and has an irritating chorus hook, and "Cousins" is short on melody and long on manic energy.
The third uptempo song of that run, though, is "Giving Up the Gun", my favorite track on the album. It is also the first of the three longish songs that end the album, along with "Diplomat's Son" (with its distracting but forgivable MIA sample) and the minimalist "I Think Ur a Contra". "Giving Up the Gun" does the urgent-drums/relaxed-vocal thing better than any other track on the album, and it has a couple really great hooks. Oddly, I've seen it referred to as one of Contra's weaker tracks, so maybe I like different things about this album than other people. It would definitely sound out of place on Vampire Weekend's debut album, and I think that's a good thing. The guys in the band know better than to stay in one place for too long - Contra is them trying out a few different avenues to figure out where to go next, it can be a lot of fun watching them play "chemistry set" with the different aspects of their sound.
"Giving Up Your Gun" by Vampire Weekend