The much-discussed cover art of Vampire Weekend’s sophomore album, “Contra,” features a pretty, preppily-attired young woman staring directly into the camera with an expression that could either be a sly smile, a contemptuous sneer or a vacant gape. Blown up into a 30-foot banner adorning the back of the Fonda Theater stage for the band’s record-release show on Tuesday, the image seemed to perfectly sum up the qualities of the band playing in front of it — attractive, tastefully turned-out and frustratingly inscrutable.
Undeniably a huge leap forward from the group’s breakthrough 2008 debut, “Contra” is a relentlessly catchy, at times adventurous album, forging an unexpectedly compatible marriage of the jaunty grooves of West African and Caribbean dance music with the baroque ornamentation of Anglophilic chamber pop. Yet in concert, this signature combination also illuminates the band’s shortcomings, as they’re too genteel to harness the carnal charge of the former styles, and too musically limited to attain the refinement of the latter.
The live setting also emphasized an ever widening gulf between the band’s best material and its worst. This disparity was especially striking at the midway point of Tuesday’s 75-minute show, when the band slogged through the graceless “One (Blake’s Got a New Face),” and then followed it immediately with the wonderfully elegant “Taxi Cab,” in which singer Ezra Koenig crooned class-conscious social critiques that might have given even Jarvis Cocker pause.
What they lacked in consistency, however, the band made up in unerringly keen melodic instincts, best displayed on 2008’s inescapable “A-Punk” and this year’s soon-to-be-inescapable “Giving Up the Gun.” And while they’re still hardly virtuosos, the foursome have clearly grown more confident as musicians: Koenig’s Paul Simon-like falsetto was almost shockingly pristine on opener “White Sky,” while multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij flitted easily from guitar to keyboard to sampler to vocals throughout, creating multi-terraced layers of sound that still managed to feel minimalist.
Vampire Weekend plays New York’s United Palace Theater, Webster Hall and Bowery Ballroom on Jan. 17-19, followed by a full national tour beginning in March.