When I first heard the title for Vampire Weekend’s latest release, “Contra”, I prepared myself for disappointment. An album named after the greatest video game ever? No chance of being good (okay, I’m pretty sure the Columbia graduates were referencing the counterrevolutionary guerrilla group, but stay with me here…). I already had been bracing myself for a 2010 mis-step from the band; their self-titled release from 2008 is a hard act to follow.
Fortunately, I was wrong. Not only is “Contra” excellent, but it shares the same attributes that made “Contra” a classic NES video game (again, hear me out..). What made “Contra” such an essential Nintendo hit was how it moved from the side-scrolling levels that take place in exotic locations to a 3-D first person approach, with Bill Rizer and Lance Bean battling aliens and robots while running up a confined, futuristic hallway, laser barriers and all. The balance between these two environments is what makes the game so memorable and replayable (my roommate and I played it a month ago on X-Box Live arcade).
Vampire Weekend’s “Contra” followed the Konami video game’s formula to a T. The familiar tropical/classical/ska sound is still there, but amidst the bongos and African inspired melodies the band throws in a more futuristic approach. Every song features technological touches (sampling, drum machine, auto-tuner) but these modern sounds are added in sparingly, providing a refreshing new twist to the jumpy Vampire Weekend sound. Basically, it’s bringing a soundscape from out of this world to the jungle, the premise to “Contra”! (I told you I’d bring it full circle)
“Run” is the best example of this new hybrid, starting with a melody that would fit perfectly on their self-titled album and an organ laying down a calyspso vibe. It isn’t until two minutes in to the track that you get a sense that the band has more in store, tossing in dashes of trance. At the 2:40 point, the electronica takes over, making you wonder if your I-POD skipped to a Kraftwerk song.
The band could have easily aimed for the main-stream with their budding popularity and infectious songwriting. It seems they decided to go the opposite route, taking their likable sound in a strange, experimental direction. Only on “Giving Up the Gun” does the band seem to be aiming for a radio friendly hit, a small omission for a band with the ability to become pop stars.
The tracks seem a little more polished, but not to a fault. The marimbas and techno beats bounce off each other, salsa dancing through your dendrites and filling you with a tropical warmth. While their last album was upbeat party music, this album begs to be heard within the confines of the headphones.
It may sound foolish that a man in his 30s still plays video games from his childhood, but something about it puts a smile on my face and brings me back to simpler times. Vampire Weekend’s “Contra” has the same time traveling powers, transporting you to a happier place where pina coladas and Ecstasy can live hand in hand.