Vampire Weekend’s Contra: Pan-Ethnic Pop, With Tzatziki Sauce!

Band's new LP is a musical melting pot, to fans' delight (and bookish critics' derision), in Bigger Than the Sound.

[artist id="2584573"]Vampire Weekend[/artist]‘s Ezra Koenig is the kind of guy who thinks really deeply about the social ramifications of gyros. I know this because he told me.

“I’ve always loved gyros,” he said. “I recently read an interesting article about how they came up in America. The modern gyro was kind of invented in Chicago, and it’s kind of a sad story, because some people made millions [and others didn't]. The Kronos foods corporation really owns gyros in America, because of their ads. You see them everywhere, and they’re always the same: they’ve got a girl, and sometimes she looks like Brooke Shields, and she’s holding a gyro. I don’t think they’ve taken a new picture in, like, 25 years, but it’s effective. It makes you associate gyros — which are not necessarily the most attractive-looking food — with babes. It’s that simple, and it works.”

In an effort to further illustrate this point, Koenig then produced his iPhone, and showed me a picture of the Kronos gyro girl in question. And yes, she did sort of look like Brooke Shields. She also looked like an amalgamation of every race on the planet: brown, vaguely wavy hair, slightly dark skin, broad nose, wide smile … all things to all people, clutching a rather greasy bundle of meat, wrapped in pita bread and smothered in tzatziki sauce. You can probably guess where I’m going with this.

Ever since they burst through the blogosphere in 2006 — first with a handful of pan-ethnic demos, then with a full-fledged album that inexplicably became a modest hit in 2008 — Vampire Weekend have basically been the Kronos gyro girls of rock. Their music is a culturally ambiguous hodgepodge, with bits of African soukous, hints of ska, drips of soca and calypso reigned in by rigid, downright-erudite private-school phrasing, finished in a decidedly Anglo, Upper West Side sheen. Their sartorial style — boat shoes and piqued Polos, the occasional keffiyeh mixed in for good measure — is equally grab-bag. They seemingly take at will, without fear of social ramifications or significance. They are virtually the reason italics were invented; they are a cultural anthropologist’s wet dream, or nightmare, or both.

That ambiguity certainly has something to do with their popularity (so does their penchant for writing wiry, whip-smart pop), but it also carries a cost: Vampire Weekend are easy targets, punching bags for angry musicologists and book-smart rock critics. They are perhaps the most derided band in blog-dom, partially due to their success, but mostly because of songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” Perhaps all of this is justified, perhaps it’s not. But it’s important to note that it exists.

Because, on their second album, Contra (which hits stores next week but is currently streaming on their MySpace page and is readily available on bit torrent sites everywhere), they’ve decided to answer their critics. Not necessarily with their music — which is still heavy on African influences, not to mention bubbly dub and dancehall synths, Mariachi horns and even a stab at T-Pain-ed Auto-Tuning — or their lyrics, which are filled with politically (and culturally) loaded words like “Horchata” and “Balaclava” “Diplomat” and “Philly Cheesesteak.” No, on Contra, Vampire Weekend come out punching conceptually.

At its heart, Contra is an album about conflict, about answering critics and claiming what’s theirs, even if it belongs to someone else. Like Koenig told me back in November : “We have this very basic theme for this record: It’s conflict, the idea of conflict, more than actually participating in it. That’s such a basic idea, and you can explore it in a lot of different ways. The primal instinct that sometimes we have, to be like ‘F— everybody else, it’s me versus you.’ … It’s related to our identity as a band. When you’re in a situation where you all of a sudden get people writing about you and saying things about you, of course you’re going to have a lot of people who try to identify you by a series of bullsh– signifiers.”

It’s apparent in the subtle classism of the barrel-rolling “Cousins,” the wide-eyed naivete of “Holiday,” and the accusatory tone — and digs at authenticity — in the album-closing “I Think UR A Contra.” There is a refined, bookish indignation at play here, an outrage, and for the first time, Vampire Weekend are taking the fight directly to their detractors. There’s a reason they called it Contra, after all: It’s an album of opposition.
Of course, though I couldn’t get Koenig to admit it, I’d like to believe this is also the reason why the album cover looks so much like one of those Kronos gyro ads. It’s a loaded image, to be sure — a vapid, WASP-y Connecticut girl in pastel Polo — but it also might just be Vampire Weekend’s final kiss-off to their critics, too: a visual representation of every bad thing that’s every been written, said or even thought about them and their music. It’s sort of brilliant if you think about it … the Kronos Quartet strikes back — minus the greasy meat and tzatziki of course.

Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com