I didn't get Los Campesinos! at first. When they were making a mark around 2008, all I heard were catchy pop punk riffs, pretty violin tunes to contrast the brashness of it all, and a lot of excited incoherent shouting that would probably have made a fun concert. "Hold on Now, Youngster," their first full album, was in and out of my brainosphere within a month.
One thing did bother me, though. I don't know if this is a convention of the twee genre or what, but they wrote with such an honest, pedestrian perspective that eschewed any higher meaning or higher culture, and I wasn't sure I liked that. What I mean is, their lyrics would make reference to scenesters, drunk dialing, LiveJournal as an emotional outlet, and all these very normal things that bands usually aim above. It's a weird thing to articulate now that I try to. I just know that it felt like they embraced hipsterish irony and snarling youth culture wholeheartedly, and that turned me off.
I was so used to my songwriters being like Will Sheff of Okkervil River, who crafts literary allusions and writes anthems about obscure pop figures, or Sufjan Stevens, who hates television and has to research civic history before making an album. They were above even thinking about LiveJournal, let alone mentioning it into a song's emotional climax. I could probably never sit down and have a normal conversation with Sheff and Stevens because they worked at a higher frequency, but that was okay, the music was heavy and important. Los Campesinos! wrote about being afraid to dance at concerts. How could they be a credible band if they sing about shit I know, from perspectives so pedestrian they're actually rare?
As I go into the band, hooked by those deliciously sweet melodies, I came to understand that it wasn't about carpet bombing references. It was about the facts of their life, and the higher significance of it all, wrapped up in pop punk, indie sensibilities and calibrated for high energy concerts. Los Campesinos! name dropped Sarah Records and Henry Rollins because that's the substance of their lives, not Saul Bellow and Adlai Stevenson. I got deep into the Los Campesinos! just before Coachella 2009, where they put on a pumped up 50 minute set, where I danced, sang and lost my throat. I knew then that these guys were cool. They could totally stay.
"Romance is Boring," their 2nd or 3rd album depending on if you count "mini-albums" as a thing, came out last week. I bought it! And here are things I thought of whilst listening with fresh ears:
1. In Media Res - With a title like this, you would think it would start with some raucous guitar mess, perhaps pyrotechnics and violent drums. They knew you were expecting that, and so it starts with acoustic guitar and keyboard, building up into a more anthemic march. There's a quiet glockenspiel and a dark interlude that sounds like a zombie horde with lo-fi mics. It resembles the heavy dissonance of Xiu Xiu's most uncomfortable works until it is saved by that gleaming white violin again, then the trumpets, and then the sky opens up and a beam of light takes care of us all. The ending is stunningly raw, and Gareth sings almost acapella: "If you were given the option of dying painlessly in peace at forty-five / but with a lover at your side / after a full and happy life / Is this something that would interest you?"
2. There Are Listed Buildings - One of two songs released to promote the album, and probably the most mass appealing. Is there any better pop vocal than "Bop-baa?" It's sturdy and is milked thoroughly for hooks and sing-a-longs. The guitarist just solos the shit out of the backing track, male and female vocals playing off one another, and your shit is wreckage. "We are but two atheists in lust / you know we gotta make our own luck" encapsulates the song's attitude: independent, snarling, and no care for conservatism.
3. Romance Is Boring - The guitar is muscular, the tone is mean and the chorus is a barely-organized mob. That is to say, it sounds like twenty drunk kids yelling at a concert, fists in the air, and you wish you were there. Their lyrical prowess is really on display here, not in their ability to evoke an emotion (although they can do that too) but in their ability to sing anything: "I will wait / I will bake phallic cake / take your diffidence make it my club house / but my strength's within lies / ventricle cauterised / it's the way of living that I espouse." That is not an easy lyric. That is not trying to find a word that rhymes with "blue."
4. We've Got Your Back (Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #2) - Nice title, right? It has an odd, challenging vocal melody. Repetitively riding the waves up and down, not the easiest ride to construct a song around. "And so fucking on / And so fucking forth." I love the disgust and bare contempt in that line. I can't get over how well the violin and guitar work together. When it comes to this combo most people my age think of bands like Yellowcard that don't really play with the tools the two afford, no sense of ensemble work or purposeful contrast. With Los Campesinos! it doesn't sound like a gimmick or an unnatural invasion, just another limb of this tweecore monster.
5. Plan A - Without the aid of liner notes, you probably aren't going to comprehend more than two words. This song is a ruckus. High pitched, turn-by-turn, fast-paced vocals with the panic of screeching guitars. Each assault of a verse is interrupted by a dissonant nightmare guitar, and the song is more punk than pop. It's more rap than pop, even. Although it's over in two minutes, it's the shot of vodka in the otherwise smooth and sweet album.
6. 200-102 - Quiet. Acoustic guitar, playing some psuedo-blues tunes, accompanied by the curious percussion sounds of bottles and pans. Seemingly. A mysterious breather, mysterious title, and 54 seconds later we're back to the rock and roll.
7. Straight In At 101 - This is the first song with a lyric that made me sit up. Not because it was especially moving, but because it's a crude, out of nowhere joke: "I think we need more post-coital / and less post-rock / Feels like the build-up takes forever / but you never get me off." Somewhere, Explosions in the Sky is squirming uncomfortably and it is hilarious. Also: Hand claps!
8. Who Fell Asleep In - A cozy, sleepy string intro signals what's ahead: A very down tempo, methodically plodding trek through a song of corruption and sex and commitment and God. Of course this band can tie all those together. It sounds like a swaying ship in the middle of the sea, drifting and stranded, swaying and creaking.
9. I Warned You: Do Not Make An Enemy of Me - A manic, mad, high-adrenaline intro makes you think you're in for another "Plan A" but it soon subsides into catchy ditty. There is very little to discern verse from chorus, or even a verse into lines. The urgency and tension shifts are jarring: the melody goes into second gear, drops back into first, jumps to third, and then somehow accelerates to faster than light. Underneath the total lack of bubblegum candy sounds, it's a great words piece: "I'll take your with such little commotion / by crippling disease or with deadly love potion / I'll bind you and gag you and all's well that ends / I suppose" stands out immediately, while "Broke down laughing and screaming for more / but if this changed your life, did you have one before?" is all attitude and no time for your shit.
10. Heart Swells/100-1 - A droning, quick palette cleanser set in the worlds best echo chamber. Not much other than a few slow strums, probably set to be a nice epigram to the next track.
11. I Just Sighed. I Just Sighed, Just So You Know - The best song title, by any band, ever, probably. It also sounds like the essence of tweeting. It's in play during the towering refrain: "I just sighed / the universe replied: / Let this pass you by." Gareth and Aleks alternate again and they both have a mouthful to say at break neck speeds. The violin is pivotal here. It provides some significant panic and urgency to the mood around 55 seconds in, offering soundtrack style foreboding, like walking into a spider's lair. Gareth spits bullets and feels the pain, Aleks lifts everything out of the muck briefly with an easily infectious lightness. It drops back into the sleepy, weary world, bringing memories of "Who Fell Asleep In." The final line is a frank and moving plea: "Please just let me be the one to keep track of the freckles and moles on your back." When the crescendo has cleared, the last twenty seconds are an orchestral showcase in that lovely echo chamber. It brings to mind Broken Social Scene's "Guilty Cubicles" if Andrew Bird guested on it.
12. A Heat Rash In The Shape Of The Show Me State; or, Letters From Me To Charlotte - Avid fans may know Charlotte from a mention in the mess-you-up anthem, "We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed." It kind of gives you a peak at how bare Gareth lays in his role as chief songwriter. Some of the best songs are forged with the bravery to toss your most honest details into the furnace. It is a love song in the sense that there's an affection here, but it's more complicated than I want you/you don't want me. The song's central grab is here: "They promised they'd be best of friends from now until forever / but both were far too needy not to fall for the other." This is going to be a constant repeater.
13. The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future - The second pre-release single, because in today's digital culture, you need two music videos and track reviews before the thing is even on sale. It's pitch black, maybe the darkest song they've done yet in terms of sonic tone. Everything is calm and collected at first, suspiciously so, as if something is looming. In time, there are a few violent bursts of "SHE SAID THAT WE SHOULD LEAVE HER / SAND UP TO HER SHOULDERS," like quick jump cuts to blurry horrors. This song is like a shipwreck in black, seething rain. The language is anecdotal, relaying stories and instances, except in the chorus, where it aspires to the big themes and alludes to a grand scope: "A thousand years in perfect symmetry." It adds an effective weight and dark coloring to the album's overall character.
14. This Is A Flag, There Is No Wind - An angry mob opens up with the best all-voice opener: "Can we all please just calm the fuck down!?" This song, like a few of the others, lacks a central path but it has a point. The second verse isn't going to follow the path into your skull the first verse carved for it. It has to go through a strange, tempo-shifted, angry guitar fuck first, and then maybe if you were good it returns to a familiar melody or theme. You can't count on the same singer, same vocal effects, meter, structure or length coming back. I imagine it's like trying to sing literature instead of poetry.
15. Coda: A Burn Scare In The Shape Of The Sooner State - It starts off with a distinctly electronic static feedback clip for a beat, a rhythmic glockenspiel, and the warm buzz of an underlining synth. It's a passionate, regretful but quick enigma. The pick-up is a mere minute in, when we're all scarring our throats to join the chant: "I can't believe I chose the mountains every time you chose the sea." The way it's belted out, it feels all-encompassing. The conviction and earnesty of the words build it up as a deeply personal detail, mysterious to us, but apocalyptic for Gareth. It's all build with no eruption, and it's more devastating for it in this small size. The pay-off is in singing until you no longer can, and saying what you want until there's nothing left to say.
Bands change their style for a lot of reasons; I've seen a lot of my favorites take a weird, backroads exit off the highway because there was nowhere else to go. They ran out of road. I always imagined Los Campesinos! would end up dong that eventually, because their sound is deceptively narrow. But I'm happy to be wrong here. It's a gradual, staggered evolution towards more muscular hooks and bigger themes. The difference between Romance is Boring and Hold On Now, Youngster is significant, but you would hardly notice it if you followed along chronologically.
I'm glad this band exists. I'm glad they're around to make feeling things cool again, while at the same time skewering it. Where love is the top of the mountain, but also a big dumb joke. Because who hasn't felt that way, and more importantly, who hasn't needed that articulated for them?