Good ideas don't always make for good songs. On its sophomore album, "Contra" (XL), Vampire Weekend is closer to figuring that out.
While their broadly hyped eponymous debut turned out to be wildly divisive in 2008, this year's model finds the Ivy Leaguers approaching a sound of their own rather than one craftily assembled from other people's.
The first single, "Cousins," gets an energy boost from a punk bass line and clipped guitar riffs, as well as Ezra Koenig's waterfall of words, while building something distinctive. The six-minute epic "Diplomat's Son," which rolls out a soap opera over a dancehall groove and an M.I.A. sample with instrumental breaks to indicate the passing of time, is probably the closest the band comes to achieving its sweeping ambitions.
That may be what makes "Contra" so maddening. Ambitions drive Vampire Weekend to stretch and try new things, but they often get in the way of the songs. "Giving Up the Gun" is charming enough as Vampire Weekend's take on dance music, lightening an industrial house groove with rock guitars and Koenig's airy delivery. But you can almost hear the wheels spinning as the band adds elements to make it sound different, more important than a dance track. In the end, though, the song sounds like an over-adorned reworking of Front 242's "Headhunter" crossed with Blancmange.
On "Contra," Vampire Weekend continues to show off its potential, but, too often, falls short of reaching it just yet.
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BOTTOM LINE More worldly, less world-beat-focused