For some bands, the pressure of ‘second album syndrome’ can be heard almost as poignantly as the rushed verses and hurried lyrics. What becomes clear is that for all the spiky melodies and idiosyncratic cultural references propounded from their stupefying debut album, Vampire Weekend were only getting started. From the stirring yet playful xylophone intro of Horchata and Ezra Koenig‘s poised vocals, clearly the burden is off. Yet delve deeper and lying past the Afro-pop percussion are muses of doubt, frustration. The problem may well lie in how to approach this sophomore release; in honouring the debut but moving on. Even drummer Christopher Tomson has admitted that “We sound more like Vampire Weekend than we did on the first record“, which bizarrely makes sense. Whilst bristling with new ideas and influences, the album itself is a fresh but instantly familiar listen. 'White Sky' typifies the effect with synthesised beats fighting over drums until an insipid guitar joins yelping backing vocals, all inside three minutes.
Listen to the sprightly 'Holiday' and even on a cold Spring morning, with its energetic rhythms the track almost sounds like Summer has ignited into life. Acoustically, the song presents a strong case for the catchiest on "Contra" yet listen carefully at the mid-point refrain where Koenig distressingly utters ‘She’d never seen the words bombs blown up, To 96 point Futura, She’d never seen an AK, In a yellowy Day Glo display’. Being the Ivy League students, the lyrics are open to interpretation yet the subject of war seems a common theme. The reference could regard the 1967 film Weekend by Jean-Luc Godard of which the band have previously aped in videos, the occupation of Iraq or World War II where 96 point Futura was a well-used headline font. Few bands can absorb then incorporate such a range of references yet Vampire Weekend always seemed the preppiest of bands having met as students at Columbia University. Throwaway lines these certainly are not.
The term California English is again open to interpretation but let’s not turn this review into an in-depth analysis. Beats thud like a racing heart, gifting Koenig’s almost mechanical vocals and a vigorous string section, a platform on which to impress. Such prevalent enthusiasm leaves 'Taxi Cab' sounding a tad forlorn with the sound stripped down a few layers which allows producer Rostam Batmanglij’s piano scales then dignified strings to sparkle alongside lonely, vulnerable vocals. Rising skat guitar ,Run offers a more calculated approach until horn refrains take the track to glorious peaks. With beefed up drumbeats still echoing from the track’s climax, Cousins almost sounds like a 33rpm vinyl played at 45. Percussion bounces about to Koenig’s effervescent yelps before settling on a barmy yet teasing roll whilst guitar tries to remains well behaved.
If piercing, crafted guitar was the indelible merit of their debut, then the percussion wins plaudits here. 'Giving Up The Gun' treats the beats as king with a loop sounding like trainers bashing about a washing machine amidst twinkling xylophone to Koenig‘s now insistent vocals.
The stop-start 'Diplomat’s Son' begins confidently enough with a building string and synths loop, and those sampled vocals, M.I.A. Again, questions of a shady nature return with talk of delicate behaviour and ice cold water sung so serenely to sporadic backing.
Given extensive remit for experimentation, the acoustic guitar employed on closer 'I Think Ur A Contra' almost sounds inept, a possible first for a so-called indie band. Yet, the lissom strums are only one coat on another typically densely layered track which begins like nature awakening then develops amongst a hubbub of piano, stirring strings and Koenig’s delicately high-pitched confessional vocals.
By straying from their debut release, Vampire Weekend find themselves on familiar territory with another spiritedly assured album.