On a fundamental level - which is to say, on the level that most of us engage with pop music - it's hard to imagine why Vampire Weekend would be a problem for anyone. The New York-based four-piece, who create effortlessly sunny, proudly undistorted pop played at a punk-rock pace, were the cleanest band in indie rock upon issuing their self-titled debut in 2008. Yes, the band met and formed at an Ivy League university, and yes, the guys are perennially bedecked in preppy clothing, recorded their first music video on a yacht and the singer Ezra Koenig makes constant lyrical reference to the most upscale East Coast holiday spots (often while crooning in falsetto). I admit that their brand of upper-class ennui might project a discomfiting air in an era of financial vulnerability. But whether the band members' lives resemble those of the children of privilege that populate their songs is beyond our knowledge, and their public face seems an awful lot like a put-on. Nobody can name-check United Colors of Benetton or call Hyannisport a "ghetto" with a straight face. And if the music of this seemingly square group of dudes is unusually dependent on rhythms and styles borrowed from Africa and the Caribbean, why not celebrate their self-aware Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa instead of bemoaning their supposedly unearned cultural appropriation?
If Vampire Weekend are the most disproportionately scrutinised band in the world, that only makes the lovers and haters alike eager to pick apart their new sophomore record, Contra. Though the title suggests a new musical fixation with Nicaraguan politics or perhaps a total aesthetic about-face, rest assured that the new record offers more of the same: erudite, cheeky and hook-laden pop music, this time with higher production values, tight orchestral arrangements and an even fuller grab bag of pilfered global styles.
Contra song notes provided to the press reference third-wave ska, Bollywood, Lil Wayne, The Clash, Kate Bush, Toots and the Maytals, baile funk and the Beastie Boys. Diplomat's Son - a Vampire Weekend title if I've ever heard one - not only mimics the rhythms of Jamaican rocksteady, but actually samples the voice of M.I.A., as if gesturing in solidarity with (or ironically nodding to) contemporary pop's most worldly collage artist. The most one can glean from the plainly absurd lyrics that open the album is that the band is still lingering in perpetual post-graduate vacationland, skipping between cultures without a second thought, picking up phrases and techniques on the fly. Take it or leave it.
If I imply that we should be willing to ignore Vampire Weekend's cultural pilfering, this time I speak with some authority. Though Contra was recorded in indie rock's home borough of Brooklyn, the band has called this their California album - and I consider myself a guardian of all things California. That the album sounds nothing like either the Beach Boys or NWA should come as no surprise. These Columbia graduates got by on what seems like a couple days of research. In a conversation with The Wall Street Journal, Koenig called California a "vague and general" theme, and mentioned being interested in nothing more complex than "this 1980s California feel, partly because I spent so much time watching Repo Man. When I first watched it I didn't even realise it took place in LA because I'd never been anywhere". They thought actually recording in California would be "too stressful", but they mention they've read plenty of Joan Didion. "Obviously you can reference different towns," Koenig says, "but that doesn't always get the feeling across."
On the mostly nonsensical track California English, Koenig's Auto-Tuned voice equates California living with a sunburned scalp and a dependence on organic toothpaste. You can see how maddening this might be for a Los Angeles native, if the Los Angeles native were not sufficiently disarmed by the music. In the age of rock-star-as-global-ambassador - here's looking at you, Bono - Vampire Weekend almost seems to be lampooning the idea of an artist expanding his cultural horizons. The band is playing its record-release show this week in Los Angeles, not New York, and I choose to receive the gesture as a welcome but unnecessary "sorry for exploiting you" gift.
Last week, Vampire Weekend were the subject of a full-length feature profile in The New Yorker magazine, an unlikely honour for such a young and superficially un-newsworthy rock group. The piece, which followed the band on a string of small shows in California, entertainingly engaged the questions of authenticity that nag Vampire Weekend, but it seemed to work overtime to justify the band's sociopolitical relevance. For all their bluster and fancy talk, Vampire Weekend's music conveys the message that, more often than not, a great pop song is just a great pop song.