I consider myself lucky to have come of age just prior to the big indie music boom in the middle of the last decade. If I took pop culture as seriously as the average teenager or college student I'm sure I'd be up in arms about the hipsters and their scene as much as the average voice on the Internet. Thankfully, I prefer to apply a little more perspective to the matter of music. If it's pretty, I'm usually okay with it. Still, I can see how some listeners might have some issues with Vampire Weekend's recent release, Contra. It's at once the very picture of indie rock and yet a complete 180 from the sounds we're used to hearing on the latest collegiate pop album. For the most part, I think VW got away with the bait-and-switch.
When a rock band reaches into the World Music bin it's usually a sign that they're running out of ideas. See the exploits of Paul Simon in the mid-1980's or Billy Joel in the early-90's. So, when the reasonably fresh musicians in Vampire Weekend decide to lean on African, Caribbean and South American sounds for Contra there's a little bit of cognitive dissonance to work through. On paper, the idea reeks of gimmick, but in practice it comes out so much more compelling than it really ought to.
Take the opening track, "Horchata". It manages to overcome the initial shock of the ancient instruments that carry it to achieve a kind of sweeping beauty that embraces its clean, competent production values instead of apologizing for them like so much indie rock usually does.
Speaking of fiddling around in the booth, it doesn't take long for Contra to bring the synthesizers into the mix. Strangely, the bloops and bleeps actually complement the playful island music sensibilities of the album's more organic elements. I suppose this makes sense in a roundabout sort of way. Pan flutes and techno keyboards are both sounds we're not used to hearing in rock music. Maybe that's why I don't mind the use of autotune in "California English" when I otherwise detest that little production trick in all of its forms. Vampire Weekend isn't using it to sound cool, they're using it to have fun.
In the end, I guess that's what Contra is all about. It's a summery, almost goofy album that sounds like a talented band really enjoying themselves. It's energetic but too smart to be bubbly. I'd like to think that we as a culture have matured beyond requiring our pop musicians to be all about rock posturing. Vampire Weekend isn't a leather jacket kind of band. I listen to them, especially on Contra, when I want to hear a bunch of East Coast college kids being clever and sunny. Variety, spice of life, etc.
I can think of few better ways to open up 2010 than with a fun album like Contra. It's too soon to say whether or not it's one of the year's best or even if it's an indication of future trends. For now, I'm happy just to call it an enjoyable record.