Punk, with Occasional Glockenspiel
The band of the year is Los Campesinos!, a crew of seven enthusiastic Welsh college kids—four guys and three girls, each with a Ramones-esque pseudonym (Harriet Campesinos!, Aleksandra Campesinos!, Ollie Campesinos!, etc.). If, like me, you have a low tolerance for preciousness, the mere sight of those exclamation points has your whimsy detector ding-ding-dinging—and I haven’t even mentioned that they sing about writing on Live Journal, or that Gareth Campesinos! plays glockenspiel. But like similarly punctuated peers Against Me! and the Go! Team, Los Campesinos! earn that exclamation point with their catchy, rousing, spirited music.
Most overstaffed rock bands—think Arcade Fire or Godspeed You! Black Emperor (who have definitely not earned their exclamation point)—sound like they’re forever straining for grandeur, as if a simple three-minute pop song with a basic 4/4 beat were somehow beneath them. Los Campesinos! give off not a whiff of ponderousness, and, aside from that exclamation point, show absolutely no trace of pretension. Earlier this year, watching them play at the Bowery Ballroom on a stage nearly as cramped as the rest of the sold-out venue, I was stunned at how nimbly their guitars clicked together, how locked-in their drummer was, how the whole band moved together with such manic dexterity. Plus, there was glockenspiel. No other band sounds quite like them.
Enthusiastic college kids tend to move fast. Here’s the Los Campesinos! timeline: Formed in March 2006. Played first gig in May 2006. Signed to London-based Wichita Recordings in November 2006. Released first EP, Sticking Fingers into Sockets, in July 2007. Released first album, Hold on Now, Youngster..., this past February. Released second album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, in October.
The EP—with its formed-a-band meta-narrative “It Started with a Mixx,” and its cover of Pavement’s “Frontwards”—bops happily along for the duration of its five-and-a-half songs. It’s pretty good. But the songwriting on Youngster represents a massive step forward; each of the twelve tracks is crammed with interesting things to listen to. It’s as though the seven Campesinos! collectively came up with more good ideas than they could pack into one album. But instead of gnashing their teeth about it, they just shrugged youthfully: “Why the fuck not try to pack them all into one album?”
A typical Campesinos! song is crowded with sounds and tunes and ideas. By the end of the first chorus of “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats,” they’ve already plowed through four structurally distinct verses, all in under eighty seconds. Coming from a lesser band, this kind of excess would be intolerable. Thankfully, Los Campesinos! keep their songs quick and focused, never meandering into prog territory. More crucially, they know that the tension/release dynamic is the stuff of pleasure itself, and they exploit that knowledge. Their music bounces around, but it always adheres to an internal, metronomic logic. Those first four sections of “Broken Heartbeats” alternate between noisy and calm, build-up and catharsis.
Los Campesinos! have other tricks up their sleeve. Some are a little blatant—at least seven of the songs feature sections in which huddled masses of voices scream the lyrics in unison, perfect for concert singalongs. (I know this because when I saw them at the Bowery, I sang along.) Other tricks are more subtle. “Knee Deep at ATP” begins with the line, “And every sentence that I spoke began and ended in ellip...sis.” Ellipsis in original: Not only does Gareth pause slightly before the final syllable, he taps out three evenly spaced chimes on the glockenspiel, representing the three dots.
Gareth is one of two vocalists in the band. He’s the frenetic yelper, while Aleksandra coos in a cool monotone. Neither of them does any real singing, but that’s OK, because the abundant riffs—stated on guitar, keyboard, violin and, yes, glockenspiel—do all the melodic heavy lifting. They also free up Aleksandra and Gareth to coo and yelp at each other all they want, trading verses, choruses, and one-liners so rapidly it took me months to register some of their jokes. “We Are All Accelerated Readers,” for example, describes an ill-advised attempt to immortalize a lover by making a statue of her: “You were ungrateful and slightly offended at the dimensions of it/You said you looked less like the Venus de Milo/and more like your mother in a straitjacket.”
From beginning to end, the album abounds with great lines, from the very first words of its very first song, “Death to Los Campesinos!”: “Broken down like a war economy.” Most of the lyrics—like the bit from “Accelerated Readers” quoted above—sketch out the sort of doomed-from-the-start romantic encounters college kids routinely sink into. “I’m taking far too many chances/On these less-than-idealistic romances,” Gareth sings on “Broken Heartbeats.” Those romances are his band’s great subject: None of their love songs end well. Lyrically, the only truly happy song in their repertoire is the giddy six-minute “You! Me! Dancing!”—and even on that one the guy admits he “can’t dance a single step,” which is certainly less than idealistic. Elsewhere on the album, the band sings of drawing pictures of skeletons “to get across the sense of impending doom,” dismissing a significant other with a callous “sweet dreams, sweet cheeks,” and—as one extra-long song title puts it—destroying the “hopes and dreams of a generation of faux-romantics.”
It’s easy to miss the discordance between the upbeat music of Los Campesinos! and their often cynical lyrics. I certainly didn’t pick up on it until I listened to their John Goodmanson–produced second album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, the band’s second record of 2008. Unless your name is Lil Wayne, a two-albums-in-eight-months pace is bound to raise eyebrows. Los Campesinos! preemptively acknowledged such skepticism when they announced the album’s impending release: “[T]his is no post-album cash-in...it’s ten all-new tracks that none of you have ever heard before.” But on a recent posting to their website, they passed the buck, writing that We Are Beautiful is simply “what the majority of you have decided to call our ‘second’ album. Not that we ever have, mind you.”
Whatever. Maybe Los Campesinos! were simply hedging their bets, because they know We Are Beautiful isn’t as impressive as the first album. There are some throwaway tracks (a pointless instrumental here, a slow song there), and a few of the songs are musically forgettable. Nothing here compares with the opening minute-and-a-half of Youngster’s “Broken Heartbeats,” or the sweet exuberance of “You! Me! Dancing!” But of course they’ve retained their sharp lyrics and flair for the dramatic.
Like Youngster, We Are Beautiful begins with an attention-grabbing first line: “I think it’s fair to say that I chose hopelessness/And inflicted it on the rest of us/But at least I’ve come to terms with my own mortality.” I had never noticed it before—maybe the election of Barack Obama brought it to my attention—but Los Campesinos! sing a lot about hope, or, rather, the lack thereof. “In times like these, hopefulness is tantamount to hopelessness,” Gareth sings in “My Year in Lists,” from Youngster. In “Broken Heartbeats,” he offers to be “the beacon of hope that you’ve always expected,” but only if you tear out his spine and replace it with a UV light first. Then there’s that extra-long song title, the aptly named “This Is How You Spell: Hahaha We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics.” And the chorus of “Ways to Make It Through the Wall,” We Are Beautiful’s first song, goes, “We wait at ease/We wait to see/We are waiting here for catastrophe.” Not a lot of hope in that.
Most of Los Campesinos!’s lyrics are about shitty relationships, except for the parts that are about how shitty the world is. Makes sense; the former applies to anyone who’s lived through college, and the latter holds true for anyone alive and paying attention here in late 2008. But the weighty subject matter contrasts jarringly with the music, which (aside from a couple rogue tracks on the new record) remains relentlessly upbeat and happy across both of the band’s albums. It’s a very humanistic—and very punk-rock—approach. The lyrics ooze pessimism, but the blitzkrieg bop of the music offers a way to make it through the wall.
In other words: We are doomed. But we are beautiful. As far as calls-to-arms go, maybe it’s not as inspiring as Obama’s sloganeering. But in this broken-down war economy, you have to seize hope wherever you can find it.
Matthew Ozga is a writer living in Manhattan.