‘Contra’ has set the new decade’s standard for the “difficult second album”. It’s weirder, more ambitious and complex than their debut, shoving in the odd cinematic string flourish, heavenly “aaah” and “oooh” choir pads and cheerful plinky plunky marimbas alongside their afro-preppy guitar pop. They’re clearly making themselves at home in the studio, since the guitars have been fiddled with more than usual; the one in ‘Holiday’ sounds like an affectionate cat purring into a ceiling fan. As well as sonically, VW are branching out in terms of songwriting. The sleepy wistful ‘Taxi Cab’ doesn’t have any surprise choruses and its instrumental could easily have been written by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. The most explosive ‘Contra’ gets is the lead single ‘Cousins’ which practically convulses with nervous energy and the wordless yelping chorus of ‘White Sky’ makes a worthy rival to the “Ay! Ay! Ay! Ay!” of ‘A-Punk’. ‘California English’ is like Talking Heads on Prozac and pixie sticks. Anyone who was expecting the band to better their debut on the next roll of the dice was deluding themselves, but even then, ‘Contra’ isn’t quite the consistently worthy follow-up the fan’s deserved. Sometimes it sounds too much like Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ on a trust-fund budget. ‘Diplomat’s Son’ for instance is like Ladysmith Black Mambazo goes synth-pop. Plus the songwriting isn’t quite so memorable; not quite so instantly loveable, but given time, nearly every track (including ‘Diplomat’s Son’) is really enjoyable.
It really is the “difficult second album” since if they had made a copy of the first album, they wouldn’t be going anywhere creatively. Here, they’ve pursued their creative ideals and, while they haven’t totally succeeded every time, it definitely shows that they’re moving forwards and not just milking the cash cow. And if there’s one thing that ‘Contra’ shows, it’s promise. If they balance the flawless songwriting of ‘Vampire Weekend’ with the ambitious experimentation of ‘Contra’ for their third album, every review of it would finish on the word “genius”.
Key track: White Sky
Listen to this: on holiday somewhere warm