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Show Review: Los Campesinos! [Metro; Chicago; 1/27/12]

Prior to this Metro show, I’d only seen Los Campesinos! twice before. Both times were at Lollapalooza, but both were vastly different from one another. The first time, the band was playing one of the small side stages, had just released their first EP, and the crowd to watch them numbered less than 200. For a festival set, even on a side stage, it was a small crowd. Yet it was as if the band was hoping to win every single person over, even the ones casually walking by on their way to see another artist at another stage. They had an intense energy, playfulness and songs that showed it off while being catchy as hell. After the show, I immediately bought their EP and had them sign it, which all of them did while drawing doodles on it and chatting with me for an inordinate amount of time. There’s just something about those super young bands, so full of life and possibility, that you hope they never lose such charms. A couple years and a couple albums later, Los Campesinos! returned to Lollapalooza, this time on a massive stage with a massive crowd. I was excited to see my old friends again, but watching their set became a bit like going to your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant to find it’s now become super popular and there’s a 2 hour wait to get in. The band was getting the success they so rightly deserved, but I felt as if some of their edge had been lost. Throw on top of it the fact that one of their core members Aleks Campesinos! would be leaving the band at the end of the tour, and I began to worry about the future of these indie pop upstarts. Their last album Romance Is Boring was also much darker and less energetic than their previous efforts, though it was still one of the best records of 2010. That darkness held strong on their most recent effort Hello Sadness, but that album felt like it took the band full circle, the lyrics holding strong and the hooks suddenly perking up to increase the likeability factor. Turns out they’re doing just fine without Aleks (and a couple other now-former members) in the fold. It had become high time, in my mind, to finally see this band outside of a festival setting and see if they could win me over once again.

All ages shows tend to bother me just a little bit, mostly because so much of the youth of today feels that talking to their friends while a band is performing right in front of them is a good idea. If you paid money to see a show, you’re there to watch the band, not talk to friends. You can do that anytime. For free. But the one thing all ages shows bring to the table is the spirit of youth. When everyone’s paying attention, there’s jumping around, sing-alongs at the top of your lungs, and generally good vibes to be absorbed by all. Los Campesinos! provided a great assist in all of this straight from the beginning of their set, starting with the dynamic first single and track off Hello Sadness, “By Your Hand”. Following it up immediately with prior singles “Romance Is Boring” and “Death to Los Campesinos!” both kept the energy level high and also provided a great retrospective of where the band is at present vs. where they were in their early days all of 4 years ago. It was the sonic equivalent of a knockout punch from the get-go, which is probably why everyone behaved themselves in the most immature way possible. There was dancing, there was singing, there was crowd surfing and even a touch of moshing, but thankfully it appeared that everyone was physically okay for the duration of the show. Gareth was doing his best to keep a cool head as the ringmaster of the proceedings, encouraging everyone to keep having a good time but also to be mindful of others and helping those in need. It was about building friendship and community as much as it was seeing some great songs performed, and it seems everyone got their way. Those hoping for catalogue-spanning highlights from Los Campesinos! weren’t really disappointed either, though as expected the majority of songs were from their new album Hello Sadness. It was grand to hear bouncing around from “Songs About Your Girlfriend” to “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed” to “There Are Listed Buildings” and “Straight in at 101” without so much as a blink of an eye. Things slowed down just past the midpoint of the set, as new songs “To Tundra” and “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope” were emotionally tough but dragged in a crowd that was looking for a good time all night. Nothing that a little “You! Me! Dancing!” couldn’t fix though, which it did and kept the celebration going for another few songs, including the encore.

Closing out the main set was a very good rendition of “Baby I Got the Death Rattle”, even if much of the crowd apparently didn’t know the song’s closing lyrics of “Not headstone, but headboard/is where I want to be mourned.” Gareth clearly tried to get a sing-along started and it unfortunately didn’t quite work out. Finishing the encore with the classic “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks” worked out far better, and there was a distinct smell of satisfaction in the air when the band walked off the stage that last time. That smell may also have been sweat. What helps make Los Campesinos! an exceptional band, outside of their dynamic and fun live shows, is the respect they have for their fans. They walked off the stage, through the backstage area, and straight to the merch table, where they remained until the very last person had cleared the room. They signed stuff, drew stuff, took photos, shook hands, engaged in too-long conversations, and basically did the same thing as the first time I saw them in 2007. To know that in spite of all their success and growth the last few years that they still care for their fans and put in the time and effort, well to me that’s the mark of a great band. It’s also a big reason why I’ll probably be a fan of theirs for as long as they’re around.

Los Campesinos! – By Your Hand

Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness

Buy Hello Sadness from Amazon

Set List
By Your Hand
Romance Is Boring
Death to Los Campesinos!
Life Is A Long Time
A Heat Rash in the Shape of the Show Me State; or, Letters from Me to Charlotte
Songs About Your Girlfriend
We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
There Are Listed Buildings
Straight in at 101
To Tundra
The Black Bird, The Dark Slope
You! Me! Dancing!
The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future
Hello Sadness
Baby I Got the Death Rattle
Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks

Upcoming Los Campesinos! U.S. Tour Dates:
Feb 12 – CASBAH, SAN DIEGO CA (21+)*

*with Parenthetical Girls

Album Review: Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness [Arts & Crafts]

Most bands that survive for at least a few records almost always have one of those “game changing” albums during which they make a radical adjustment to their sound. The thinking is that the shift in direction will keep the band themselves from getting bored while challenging current fans and courting new ones. Musical trends change too, and sometimes a band doesn’t want to sound like they’re “behind the times” or are desperate to sound like whatever’s hot at the time. These shifts are all the more noticeable the higher profile the band is, which is why U2’s transformation in the 80s was so noteworthy, and why Radiohead’s move towards all-out electronica on “The King of Limbs” resulted in a lot of backlash (see also: the knife twist between “OK Computer” and “Kid A”). But sometimes a band changes their sound in the most organic way possible: slowly developing it record by record. Such truths are most evident provided you’ve been keeping up with a band from song 1, and the younger the band members are at the time, the better. Such is the case with Los Campesinos!. The Welsh collective first came to everyone’s attention via 2007’s “Sticking Fingers Into Sockets” EP, then a bunch of fresh-faced college dropouts with pop culture obsessions and heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics. Their sound was undeniable winsome indie pop, complete with glockenspiels galore, shout-along lyrics and choruses that were catchy as all get-out. The exclamation point at the end of their name said it all, along with song titles such as “You! Me! Dancing!” and “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives”. Such fun and addictive simplicities were maintained on the band’s 2008 full length debut “Hold On Now, Youngster”, but very shortly thereafter things began to change.

Several months after the release of their first full length, Los Campesinos! released the 10-track “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed”, a limited edition “mini album” containing all new songs that was recorded a couple months prior during a brief break from touring. The title alone said volumes about it, but track titles like “Miserabilia” and “Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1” also helped to spell it out for you. The quick tempos, shouty choruses and glockenspiels all began to take a back seat to heavier guitar work and singer Gareth Campesinos’s hyper-literate lyrics. Their sly, winking humor was largely replaced by astute commentaries on the pitfalls of relationships be they romantic, friendly or familial. Think of these transitional stages like a child growing into an adult, with those first couple pieces of music containing an almost child-like innocence, the “mini album” getting darker and dirtier as puberty set in, and then their last full length, 2010’s “Romance Is Boring” parlaying that growth into young adulthood. What are some of your main goals between the ages of 18-25? Drinking and fucking tend to be the two most easily associated with the era, and that last album had both, though much more of the latter. It should come as no surprise then that the band decided to title its fourth (or third, depending on what qualifies) long player “Hello Sadness”. You get one quick guess as to what the general mood of the record is.

For those playing the home game, if you said the mood of “Hello Sadness” was sadness, you would be correct. You win the award for Most Obvious Correct Answer. And while the lyrics do paint an overwhelming portrait of sad-sackery, the good news is the music doesn’t fully embrace that same sentiment. Listening to a bunch of heartbroken or suicidal songs in which the tempo goes overly heavy will likely put you in the same sort of mood the album evokes, and not a lot of people want to listen to albums that bring them down both verbally and sonically. That’s one of the biggest hurdles “Romance Is Boring” faced, and though the band handled the darker stuff extraordinarily well, that record dragged much more than it soared. The cute keyboard-spattered “By Your Hand” opens “Hello Sadness” and it it immediately pushes back against the downer vibe on the last record with one of the band’s catchiest melodies to date. The lyrics may be all about hoping a girl will kill you rather than break your heart, but the instruments bounce along with such zeal it almost makes the experience seem pleasant. The full band sing-along of the chorus is classic Los Campesinos! by now, and while it’s not the sugar rush of a past opener like “Death to Los Campesinos!”, it maintains a bright appeal in spite of its morbidity. Even the title track, with the sentiment of, “goodbye courage/hello sadness” chugs along like a modern adaptation of 80s dark-tinged pop classics, the bass line akin to some New Order gems and Gareth’s vocals take on an almost Robert Smith-esque quality paired next to his Dickensian imagery.

Speaking of Gareth’s vocals, he’s matured them along with the band, pulling away from some of his trademark yelps and not trying to stretch his range beyond what he’s capable of. The result is better control and power, a wise choice given he’s not sharing lead singing duties as much since Aleks left the band (this is their first record without her). While Gareth has always been a fine singer given the outpouring of dramatic shit he spouts off from song to song, this is the first Los Campesinos! record where all his vocals emote in exactly the way they need to. He spits fire on “Hate for the Island”, adopts a snotty punk attitude on “Songs About Your Girlfriend” and is frought with worry on “Baby I Got the Death Rattle”. Given that this record was written and recorded reportedly after Gareth suffered a pretty big break-up, these songs are probably that much more personal to him and you can largely hear it in his voice. It’s a shame then that his lyrics aren’t quite what they used to be. For a band that once even titled a song “We Are All Accelerated Readers” and then pretty much proved it with hyper-literate witticisms that commented on eveything from Rousseau to “Jane Eyre”, there’s a certain sense that things are a bit blander and less clever on “Hello Sadness”. The cleverness factor may be down a bit, but the smart wordplay largely remains intact. It’s difficult to criticize lines such as, “Your body above me, sobbing down/My cheeks wet from your tears/They extinguish each of the burning thread veins/Flow down to my ears/Now they rest in two tiny reservoirs/That overfed the wedded canals” when the images they conjure up are impressively powerful. Even the most depressing lines about death are made that much more engaging to listen to because of the way they’re phrased. “My memories are sepia/But the photograph is not/An historian is fucking with them/As deadly as garrotte”, he sings on “Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)”. You might need a dictionary to truly understand what he’s getting at, but that’s also part of what makes the lyrics so damn good. Some might argue the use of such challenging vocabulary is really Gareth’s way of bragging about how smart he is, but by that same token none of the classical authors felt the need to “dumb down” their words. That’s not to say Gareth is on par with classic literature, but most assuredly nobody else is penning songs quite like him these days.

Perhaps the reason that Los Campesinos! toned down their sillier bits is because like any full grown adult the days of goofing around are largely over. Then again you’re only as young as you feel, and we all probably know a few people over the age of 40 that could use a bit of maturity. It’s not like the band is all of a sudden filled with middle-aged adults either. They’ve yet to reach their late 20s but come across like they’re twice that age. Have they grown up too much, too fast? Their albums have all logically progressed from one into the next, but would they have been wrong to have stayed lighter and poppier for another record or two? Probably not, and given that “Hello Sadness” is a relatively serious adult album, where can they go from here? That will probably be most dependent on whatever headspace Gareth is in at the time. At least on this latest effort they’ve found their pop edge again. There really hasn’t been much to call single-worthy on the band’s last two efforts (even as there have been singles), which is why “By Your Hand” and the title track seem a little like a sonic regression to their earlier days. The overall balance of the record is a little off too, with the front half bringing far more energy and hooks while the back half is a more subdued and depressing affair. The key transitional moment and true crux of the album comes via “Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)”, a five minute electric guitar-heavy excursion that is both harsh and gorgeous, lively and stagnant. It stands as a great testament to just how far Los Campesinos! have come in four short years, and is also a gentle reminder that as much as it crushes our spirits, sometimes sadness is worth welcoming into our lives.

Los Campesinos – By Your Hand

Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness

Buy “Hello Sadness” from Amazon

EP Review: Los Campesinos! – All’s Well That Ends [Arts & Crafts/Wichita]

It’s been a mere few months since Los Campesinos! released their last album, “Romance Is Boring”, yet despite this they still feel the need to put out something as a stopgap of sorts. These kids are nothing if not productive – after all, they did release their debut full length “Hold On Now, Youngster” to critical acclaim, only to follow that up some months later with the 10-track “non-album” titled “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed”. This new EP “All’s Well That Ends” is in fact a legitimate, 4-song release from the band, though you’ll be hard-pressed to find it in any other format other than digital. It’s also really something for steadfast and dedicated fans of the band, as there aren’t any “new” songs in this collection. Instead, this EP features 4 songs from their last album “Romance Is Boring” redone in sparse, nearly acoustic arrangements. The tempo gets slowed down and there’s a few different vocal turns as well, allowing for certain more subtle elements of each track to really get pushed forwards.

In case you’re busy sorting through your mp3s and are too clumsy to notice the difference between these EP versions and their originals, Los Campesinos! have helpfully added a few additional words to each song title. Starting out with “Romance Is Boring (Princess Version)”, they turn the punky original into something that’s a little plodding (and quite frankly a little boring…just like romance!), but there are some nice instrumental touches with the acoustic guitars, slide guitar, piano and violin. The most markedly different (and quite frankly exciting) track on the EP is the remake of “A Heat Rash In The Shape Of The Show Me State; or, Letters From Me To Charlotte”. Here it’s retitled “Letters From Me To Charlotte (RSVP)”, and the most noteworthy change is in vocalists, where one of the girls in the band sings. Given that Aleks has now officially left the band, they don’t have a female voice that’s quite as strong as hers. That’s evident from whomever (Kim or Ellen, etc) is singing “Letters to Charlotte (RSVP)” in a duet with Gareth, though to be clear the singing isn’t bad or off-key in the least. Lacking confidence might be the best phrasing to use when describing it. Yet it’s also remarkably effective with the tragedy and general sadness of the lyrics mixed with the acoustic and violin sentiments. “Straight In At 101/It’s Never Enough” has new doubled over male vocals courtesy of Rob backing up Gareth, and it gives the whole pathetic chasing girls lyrical scenario that much more creedence. It does come off as a bit odd though, what with two guys not so much singing but more delivering that spoken word vocal without so much as a harmony. Then again, Los Campesinos! don’t really do harmonies. Where “(All’s Well That Ends) In Medias Res” shines is in the actual execution. The otherwise busy and fast-paced original track that opens the “Romance Is Boring” album may have a ton going for it, but this new quieter version allows for greater focus on the lyrics and other moody nuances.

For an EP that’s tough to find physically and essentially only for Los Campesinos! completists, the band is doing the right thing by making its availability somewhat scarce. Unlike many acoustic or stripped down records that bands tend to release, “All’s Well That Ends” isn’t quite as good or revealing as you might hope it would be. Perhaps the biggest reason for that is the very complicated and unique nature of Los Campesinos’ music in the first place. They have so much going on in each song and there’s plenty of energy that goes into each performance, so when you strip all that away you’re left with are Gareth’s lyrics, which are quite brilliant but no different than they were originally. Sure, this stripped down approach gives you a reason to focus on said lyrics amid what otherwise would have been busy arrangements, but in the world of Los Campesinos! if you listen to each regular album track enough you’ll get around to the deeper meanings and entertaining wordplay eventually. Best to view this EP as a curio, something at the very least worth hearing just to know what the band does when the chips are down and the glockenspiels are put away. Anything beyond that and you’re probably going to struggle to figure out why it was worth the few dollars you spent on it.

Los Campesinos! – Romance Is Boring (Princess Version)

Buy “All’s Well That Ends” from Wichita

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