Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A world banquet mixed just right - Vampire Weekend's 'Contra'

Every one seems to be listening to Vampire Weekend these days. And so, while I don’t like doing things just because they’re the done thing, I thought I should give them a listen and, sure enough, I discovered what a great listen they turned out to be, about five minutes after the tickets to both their upcoming Melbourne concerts sold out.

Still, their latest album, Contra, is good enough that listening to it over and over is at least going to be some consolation for not being able to see this really very interesting, highly polished, young American band live.

I want to focus here on Contra, Vampire Weekend’s second album, even though the general consensus seems to be that their first, self-titled, offering is their best. But I assume that Contra will be the main focus of their tour, and so it seems only apt that I punish myself properly for not being better organised, and spend some time here talking about how good this music is.

The music is, like I say, polished. It brings together the soft shuffling beats of South Africa, much as Paul Simon once did, into the more mainstream territory of modern soft rock, in a rather structured, planned kind of way, like an arranged marriage. You never get the impression here that the music’s different parts just somehow stumbled across one another on the street and decided to hook up and have babies. But it’s a marriage that turns out happily nonetheless, with partners who, with the right coaxing and cajoling, really seem to have been meant for one another all along.

But it’s not just the coaxing and cajoling that have made things work. The bits of music that make up this marriage are well travelled and multiculturally aware and they bring a kaleidoscope of world experience to their union. There are bits of Latin American, and bits of South East Asia, and bits of India – musical flavours that are rich but never overpowering so, even when it’s all mixed together, you can taste each ingredient, even if sometimes in this panoramic context, you can’t quite put a name to it.

Right from the opening ‘Horchata’, with its swirling keyboards, and especially in the irresistible jive of ‘California English’, the music bounces and bubbles in fresh air and open spaces so that even the quieter moments, like the easy flowing ‘Taxi Club’, seem full of healthy energy.

‘Cousins’ is perhaps the closest Contra comes to sounding contrary but even there the ,music, with its frenetic drums pounding along, makes you feel more like going for a good run to let off steam than going out and shooting someone.

Vampire Weekend give us music that is always elaborate and carefully crafted, where guitars and hand drums and piano and harpsichord and strings and an assortment of percussion from pretty well every corner of the globe are all there, playing their part, adding just the right shade of just the right colour at just the right time.

By time you have finished listening to Contra – and it closes, as you might expect it to, in just the right way, with the beautifully reflective ‘I Think Ur a Contra’, its cello putting you to rest like sunset – you feel you have had one of those happy, healthy days, full of energy and life and colour: one of those days you always treasure, ahead of one of those blissful sleeps you never remember.

Many thanks to Tess for her enthusiastic advocacy of Vampire Weekend. I may have missed out on a ticket to the gig, but I’ll be bopping along just as much, just the same.

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