You have to know when to stop eating pancakes.
If you don’t push away the plate in time, the notion that seemed such a good idea at first is likely to make you nauseas after a half hour of fried batter, butter, and amber-colored liquid sugar.
Similarly, a 16-minute EP of bubbly, breathless indie pop—with just a tad of garage band static to roughen it up a bit—was a delicious treat. So were the three non-album singles. The question is: how much of a Pancake Effect is at play now that Los Campesinos! has strung together a full 40 consecutive minutes of musical entertainment?
The answer is, actually, that it’s not the sweet that’s the problem.
The less enthusiastic are likely to be turned off by the increasingly snide lyrics of lead vocalist Gareth Campesinos! or the anachronistic touches of punk that sometimes float too close to the surface.
However, your ears would have to be stopped up with maple syrup to miss the parade of lovely melodies, which when mixed with a tad of controlled chaos (such as on the fantastic “Drop it Doe Eyes”) create a triumph of balanced voices and group interplay. And you’d have to be in a serious pancake coma to not, at the very least, bob your head vigorously at the everyone-on-board surge of album opener “Death to Los Campesinos!”
Plus, although it’s now nothing new to crowd the names of bands, albums and songs with lots of words and extra punctuation, surely the seven members of this unit deserve extra, cheeky credit for collectively adopting “Campesinos!” as a last name.
One of the things that had heretofore made them irresistibly endearing was their frankness about an un-self-conscious enthusiasm for music. “You! Me! Dancing!” is about disregarding notions of cool and just letting go. Sure, they proclaimed to be “working on our attitudes” on their first single last year…but I thought it was a joke!
It seemed they acutely observed the hollow poses that are the currency of any “scene,” but observed it all as a bemused partygoer hovering right near the door in case the hot air got too oppressive. It seemed they believed that last night a folder of mp3s transferred to my iPod saved my life… not that an “incorrectly” enjoyed album killed somebody else.
So whence the bitterness on Hold On Now, Youngster…? “Four sweaty boys with guitars tell me nothing about my life,” Gareth sings in “And We Exhale and Roll our Eyes in Unison,” taking a fashionably obscure band’s little round button from his sweater vest and stabbing it through the heart of the whole music-as-transformative-power thing.
(Full disclosure: I have a little, round Los Campesinos! button affixed to my favorite hoodie.)
The songs are filled with meticulously observed social details that could arouse Alex Turner’s envy. When they’re clever or funny (“And no more conversations about which Breakfast Club character you’d be/ I’d be the one that dies/ No one dies/ Then what’s the point?”) they’re very good. On the rare occasion when they reflect a hint of vulnerability, they’re great. Witness: “And when our eyes meet, all I can read is ‘You’re the B-side.’”
But otherwise it’s just the sort of insecurity motivating that guy who purposely pontificates too loudly about how “the music in this place always sucks.” Gareth sounds like his chief ambition is to be that guy. “You look desperate! You look pathetic!” he protests in “Sweet Dreams Sweet Cheeks.” “I accept that it’s time for a change but not in places like this with people like these,” he spits in “My Year In Lists.”
Isn’t the whole point of the non-album single “The International Tweexcore Underground” (one of the band’s best compositions) to poke fun at this attitude? Dismissing a potential suitor because his gauche list of musical influences makes him “one of them” is a hilarious, knowing joke…right?
(I admit my perspective is colored by non-musical information, such as a recent interview in which Gareth said he was in charge of the Los Campesinos! Myspace page and boasted about diligently checking the list of favorite bands listed on prospective Friends’ pages, to determine if he must reject the add request on account of poor taste. Or the other where he claimed his favorite song ever is “In Accordance to Natural Law" by Bikini Kill, because “in 28 seconds it says more than most bands do in an entire discography.” We exhale and roll our eyes in unison, indeed.)
The best songs here mix-and-match sweet melodies and giddy, hopscotch guitar riffs with a soupcon of fuzz. When it’s really swinging, the band adds up to a glorious mess—back-and-forth tempo shifts, Alexandra’s sweet voice, Gareth’s snarl, Neil’s punk-influenced guitar chording and Tom’s bouncy, nearly sing-along riffs weave together like a game of Jenga that’s forever swaying and threatening to collapse. I suspect these devotees of Pavement will correctly view “a glorious mess” as a big compliment. (Note to Mr. Newfeld: turn up Harriet’s trumpet!)
The band and Newfeld seem consciously aware of the Pancake Effect, and have thrown plenty of gravel into the batter... sometimes just a little too much. “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats,” sequenced as the second song on the record, seems like it’s deliberately baiting the listener who came to the work after hearing about how it would be good-time indie pop. Other spins into cacophony throughout the record defy the “twee” claim in interesting but abrasive fashion.
The aesthetic is brilliantly depicted in the video for “Death to Los Campesinos!” in which the band members suffer death by unicorn, rainbow and confetti. The challenge is that everybody tried to pack all of this all into each song, rather than letting different parts of the album touch in different ways.
In the end the record is a triumph, and on occasion it’s even affecting. “And I know he took you to the beach,” Gareth sings to a (would-be?) lover in “Knee Deep at ATP,” “I can tell from how you bite on your cheek every time the sand falls from your insoles.”
In an undeniably quirky way, that’s actually vulnerable and sweet. Surprisingly, it turns out that it’s not the syrup in the album that poses a problem, but the bitterness. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent order.
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