At first listen, the boys in Vampire Weekend — four pasty Columbia U. sharps who dub their brainy brand of art-pop "Upper West Side Soweto" — come off like rich-boy villains in a John Hughes movie. They indulge in the well-read lyricism of privilege; they date soapy-smelling heiresses schooled at Middlebury. On their 2008 self-titled debut, spastic winky songs were given such upturned titles as Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and Oxford Comma — references to Congolese soukous rhythms and archaic punctuation seemingly installed to turn off the masses. Appropriately enough, Vampire Weekend — which last week released its sophomore album, Contra — is adored and despised in equal volume. But for all their passport poetry and spritely handling of world politics, these Weekenders are actually warm and fuzzy populists with an L.L. Bean backpack full of heart-filled hooks. Don't believe me? Here's a quickie primer to help you enjoy their multiculti party.
Paul Simon From lead singer Ezra Koenig's nerdly twee vocal to guitarist Rostam Batmanglij's Afro-popping guitar plucks, Vampire Weekend offers consistent nods to Simon's 1986's Graceland, a mbaqanga-inspired masterpiece. However, on Contra, which was recorded partly in Mexico City, and especially on first single Cousins, there's also a nod to the Latin American rhythms found on Simon's 1990 followup, The Rhythm of the Saints. Also, the song Diplomat's Son (which samples M.I.A.'s Hussel) sounds so much like Simon, it should be called The Only Other Living Boy in New York.
Scrabble "In December, drinking Horchata / I'd looked psychotic in a balaclava." That's how the ecstatic Horchata begins, Koenig presumably playing the part of a spoilsport sick of Aspen, dreaming of the Vineyard. After that curious opening, the song erupts in a world music huzzah of frenetic percussion and ascending heart. "Here comes the feeling you thought you'd forgotten!" You'll enjoy this song a lot more if you know horchata is cold Mexican rice drink with almonds and cinnamons (and preferred by the lactose-intolerant). A balaclava is essentially a ski mask. See? It's all starting to make sense!
Welcome to Sunny Florida! If the band's 2008 debut was all about summering with the pretty people, Contra (which is Spanish for "against") is the "polar" opposite, a shifting protagonist stuck in the ice. The bouncy ska-pop of Holiday sounds like a Northerner hoping to get south, literally and figuratively. The reserved joy of Giving Up the Gun ("Your Tokugawa smile /And your garbage style / Used to save the night") urges a soul to "shine in your own way."
The Clash Vampire Weekend is all about wordplay and sly references. Contra (as in the right-wing Nicaraguan militia) is a nod to the Clash's 1980 album Sandinista! (as in the socialist Nicaraguan political party). Diplomat's Son is reportedly a wink to fallen Clash hero Joe Strummer; slow, somber album-closer I Think Ur a Contra references 1977 Clash single Complete Control. And lest you think Vampire Weekend is missing backbone, drummer Christopher Tomson time-keeps with all the skittery complexity of the Clash's Nicky "Topper" Headon. Check out the lover's escape of Run for the tricky Straight to Hell beatdown.