“Contra” (XL Recordings) — Vampire Weekend
For such a mild-mannered, studious sort of band, it’s surprising the passionate reaction that a mere mention of Vampire Weekend stirs among indie rock fans.
For some, their eclectic but accessible blend of African sounds, classical music flourishes and good ol’ rock ’n’ roll is intoxicating and original; for others, the group’s appropriation of black styles seems like grating musical tourism when undertaken by four preppie, young Columbia grads, and the quirky lyrics of singer Ezra Koenig come off as eye-rollingly pretentious.
After their sophomore album, “Contra,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in January, the hype and hate have ramped up to even higher levels. So, the question is: Is “Contra” any good?
The answer: It’s good, but not quite as immediate and enjoyable as their 2008 debut. There’s nothing as instantly irresistible as the baroque but bouncy “M79”; instead, Vampire Weekend broaden their sound, experimenting with Auto-Tuned vocals (“California English”), dub production techniques and samples (the M.I.A. vocals on “Diplomat’s Son”), even atmospheric, ambient textures (delicate album closer “I Think UR a Contra”).
Fortunately, the band balances these more esoteric tracks with a handful of catchy singles (or potential singles): “Horchata,” with its rumbling tribal drums and soaring vocal chants, the punky, wired “Cousins” and the delightful, loping groove of “White Sky.”
As usual, neither Vampire Weekend’s most rabid fans nor their detractors have it right; “Contra” is instead a solid follow-up to a stellar debut, and holds the promise of a long, fruitful career and many more great songs to come.
— TRAVIS GASS
“Buffet Hotel” (Mailboat) — Jimmy Buffett
I saw Jimmy Buffett open for the Eagles in 1977 on their Hotel California tour. “Margaritaville” had just begun saturating the radio and Buffett won over the friendly crowd, and me, with confidently delivered tunes backed by something like eight musicians on pedal steel, mandolin, fiddle and the like, providing a rich musical texture.
The Eagles soon imploded from the very excesses they lamented in song. But 33 years later, Buffett is going strong, comfortably leading the house band at the perpetual beach party.
Social decadence was critiqued — or was it celebrated? — on “Hotel California, “but at “Buffet Hotel,” the good-times vibe is booked for an extended stay. Buffett, as Parrothead Cruise director, has picked up where the Beach Boys left off, giving audiences a good show decades after the hits stopped.
And what’s wrong with that? He answers in “Big Top”: “Just like Santa/I come around once a year … Time to break out all of your party gear/Just look for those fins/Singin’ along with your favorites once again/There’s nothin’ wrong with that.”
Most of the songs on “Buffet Hotel” have their share of clever word play and catchy grooves presented in a polished but lively musical setting. Fine. Yawn.
I wonder what Buffett would produce if given the stripped-down, warts-and-all Rick Rubin treatment that worked for Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. Or what if he were pushed out of his comfort zone, perhaps recording live in the studio with bluegrass musicians, or rocking out with some hotshot guitar players?
We’ll probably never know. Oh, but while you’re up, would you grab me another cold one?
— TOM GROENING
“Odd Blood” (Secretly Canadian) — Yeasayer
How Yeasayer manages to simultaneously conjure up Peter Gabriel, the Pet Shop Boys, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin, MGMT and Animal Collective is still a mystery to me. Nevertheless, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based three piece does it all throughout its second album, “Odd Blood,” plus more.
“Odd Blood” positions Yeasayer right smack in the middle of many of the current trends in music — lo-fi house, Afrobeat-influenced indie pop, electronic tribalism — and somehow separates them from everybody else. “O.N.E.” is an early frontrunner for indie party jam of the year, combining synth blurbles with a bubbly guitar line and a propulsive percussive base.
The syncopated, fuzzy “Rome” brings to mind both Prince at his most antic and the more contemporary and equally relentlessly danceable LCD Soundsystem. “Ambling Alp” is simply a great song, as is “Madder Red,” with its wordless, sing-along refrain. There are a few duds — the draggy opening track “The Children” and the woozy, excessively sentimental “I Remember” — but when Yeasayer puts on its party shoes and shies away from its hippy dippy New Age side, the music shines.
There’s an overarching weirdness to the album that some may find off-putting, but for all those who enjoy a little genuine strangeness and no-holds-barred experimentation in their happy, infectious dance music, this is a must-listen.
There must be something in the water in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to have spawned so many progressive, unusual, electronic rock acts over the past decade.
— EMILY BURNHAM
“Slice” (Aware/Columbia) — Five for Fighting
The fifth studio album debuted strong with hit single “Chances” and while singer-songwriter John Ondrasik attempts to go a bit retro by borrowing from some of his personal musical influences from the 1970s, there’s plenty of his signature sound remaining to satisfy diehard fans.
In fact, diehards will be thrilled to know Ondrasik reuinited with producing partner Greg Wattenberg, whom he collaborated with to come up with super hits like “Superman” and “100 Years,” for three tracks (“Chances,” “Slice” and “Story of Your Life”).
While Five for Fighting is Ondrasik, the further irony is that there are actually six primary musicians involved in the arrangement of this 11-song compilation: Ondrasik (vocals, piano), Jack Daley (bass), Greg Suran and Gerry Leonard (guitars), Shawn Pelton (drums, perscussion) and Randy Cooke (drums).
The album, billed as unflinchingly personal, tries to reflect the broader culture, reflect on Ondrasik’s views on his life and experiences that have shaped it, and offer inspiration with a social message. What’s that message? That’s for you to decide after you give it a thorough listen.
— ANDREW NEFF