Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Los Campesinos!

When I was younger, I was often perplexed when listening to performers from the non-American English-speaking world as to why the accents (or lack of accents, depending on your perspective) so prevalent in their speaking voice nearly always vanished when singing. From the Beatles to Elton John and on to U2, there seemed to be little distinctiveness of their respective deliveries from their American counterparts (by American, I mean North American, as Canadian accents are only just slightly different from those in the states). Of course, there are been exceptions. The punk movement stressed authenticity, and artists reaching as far back is Ray Davies in The Kinks to Johnny Rotten's Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer's The Clash all emphasized their British roots far more than their predecessors. Later, the frontmen in alternative-era acts like oasis, Blur and – to a far less lasting degree, The Proclaimers – mildly stressed their homelands' vocal uniqueness, although their peers in Radiohead, Bush and Coldplay could hardly be spotted as brashy Brits on a first listen. Conversely, some American vocalists – namely Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong and The Killers' Brandon Flowers – chose to adopt a pseudo-British sneer to fit their sound.

As this to say that when you come across an artist or band featuring more identifiable accents in song, it's noticeable. And such is the case with the Cardiff, Wales-based septuplet, Los Campesinos! and their duly British-sounding primary vocalist, Gareth Campesinos! (the band goes Ramones-style, adopting Campesinos! surnames for all its members; campesinos itself means peasants in spanish). From the outset, it's clear you're encountering a group from Her Majesty's empire. Gareth's punk-infused snarl harks back to influences like Davies, Rotten and Strummer, and is fitting for the group's hard-charging demeanor. But, in contrast with the band's punk-tinged Romance is Boring – their third full-length release in 2010 – their new 10-track collection, Hello Sadness (out today on Wichita Recordings) blends the punk sneer of its predecessor with the more bright and boastful pop collective approach of their first two records, Hold on Now, Youngster... and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, both released in 2008 on the same label.

This combination of styles – the post-punk power found in outfits like Tokyo Police Club (NMT) and We Were Promised Jetpacks (NMT) with the big, poppy multi-gender collectives like the Arcade Fire (NMT), the recently-on-hiatus Broken Social Scene and the Givers (NMT) – breeds an offspring that's both lively and edgy, and allows a coterie of sonic habits to trickle in, not only from their aforementioned peers, but hints of U2, The Hold Steady (NMT), The Cure, Weezer (NMT) and more. The album's dawning track, "By Your Hand," points most directly to the latter set, with its boisterous chorus and hand claps suggesting a communal vibe, and the tawdry details of Gareth's verses much in keeping with tracks like The Givers' "Up Up Up" and Library Voices' (NMT) "If Raymond Carver Were Born in the 90's." Gareth – who's also the band's glockenspieler (glockenspielist? glockenspielmeister? I've longed for the opportunity of such a quandary in this space!) – allows plenty of room for the rest of the band to shine here, especially back-up vocalist and keyboardist Kim (Gareth's sister), bassist Ellen and guitarists Neil and Rob.

Meanwhile, the following "Songs About Your Girlfriends" – while still sufficiently poppy – lands closer to the post-punk tradition, with its its clenching guitar intro setting up Gareth's gnarly lyrics and the track racing across its 3:18 of runtime. But it doesn't stray far from the Arcade Fire-style group sing-alongs found on the opener, either. Next up, the record's title track is a bit more restrained and moody – a nod to their Cure influences – but features some nice violin contributions from now-former member Harriet (who amicably left the band this September to continue her education) and builds to a swirling zenith later on.

In "Life is a Long Time," the band arrives at it its closest counterpart to the Arcade Fire's most recent offering, The Suburbs, as if Win Butler and crew contributed a lost track meant to fall between "We Used to Wait" and "Sprawl 1 (Flatland)." Gareth's tale of disillusionment mirrors Butler's description of suburban malaise, in lyrics like:

Over time they build up the city / And our arguments show it all /
Every ring road, every motorway / Displayed in crease and wrinkle


You know it starts pretty rough / And ends up even worse / And what goes on in-between / I try to keep it out of my thoughts

The post-punk vibe returns on "Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)," with its less exuberant tone and featured keyboards from Kim echoing a similar use on Tokyo Police Club's Champ collection. Interestingly, the cut contains a reference to ABBA's "Waterloo," with Gareth slightly reworking lyrics that song's chorus prelude to, "and how could I ever refuse? I feel like I loose when I loose." After the slow-moving ballad, "Hate for the Island," the group delivers the record's most shimmering track, the U2-flavored "The Black Bird, The Dark Slope." Guitarists Neil and Rob are at their pinnacle here, with their The Edge-like minimalism providing an emboldening lift. Moreover, the split vocals between Gareth and Kim are a welcome change of pace, although I wish Kim had been utilized more on this record, in keeping with the band's greater use of smoother female voices to balance out Gareth snarly foundation (Kim succeeded her predecessor Aleksandra on back-up vocals and keyboards in 2009, after Aleksandra also left on good terms to pursue studies). I always prefer bands with shared lead vocals, and even more so when they're split between girls and guys.

Like "Hate for the Island," "To Tundra" is largely a plodding affair, although it very gradually builds some steam and benefits from some greater conviction near its conclusion. The slower stuff continues on the concluding pair of numbers, with "Baby, I Got the Death Rattle" and "Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. II" easing the effort on a more restrained note. However, the former isn't far from a slower version of The Hold Steady's "Sequestered in Memphis" in its second half, with Gareth reprising Craig Finn's call-and-response chorus alternating "headstones" and "headboards" much like Finn's "Texas" and "Memphis."

Come for: "By Your Hand"
Stay for: "Songs About Your Girlfriend"
You'll be surprised by: "The Black Bird, The Dark Slope"

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