Drink to This
There’s a Web site out there now called Drinkify.org that makes suggestions as to what alcohol you should drink while listening to a certain band. For hipster-friendly acts, old and new, such as Broken Social Scene, the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, the site suggests that you should down a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. If you’re listening to more dour British acts like the Smiths, you should drink one bottle of Buckfast at room temperature. The Cure? One bottle of Cocaine (the caffeinated energy drink, not the drug), on the rocks and garnished with sugar. (I guess the site figures you’re listening to their more upbeat stuff like “The Lovecats” and not, say, Pornography.) Joy Division? Mix a concoction of two ounces of vodka, two ounces of lemon juice, and one bottle of Schnapps. And then there’s Los Campesinos!, who earned their claim to fame as being a very twee-like indie rock outfit. Drinkify says you should combine eight ounces of Woodford Reserve Bourbon with another eight ounces of Red Bull for a little bit of an extra kick. Well, Drinkify probably hasn’t heard the band’s fourth and latest long-player Hello Sadness because it largely abandons the twee foundation that the group was founded on, and it is a much lyrically and, in its second half, musically darker affair than previous efforts. That is to say that you can forget about spiking the bourbon with Red Bull while listening to Hello Sadness and just take the whole dang bottle of the strong proof and wallow in misery with it.
There have been a few changes afoot in the Los Campesinos! camp to make the band arrive at their current point of destination. The originally seven-piece band has lost three members since recording last year’s Romance Is Boring, and singer/lyricist Gareth Campensinos! (all of the group members take Campensions! as a surname, in the vein of what the Ramones did) reportedly went through a nasty breakup recently, which will likely fuel comparisons between Hello Sadness and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. The record was recorded in Spain earlier this year with past producer John Goodmanson (2008’s We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed and 2010’s Romance Is Boring), but it marks a change of direction – some may argue a maturation – in that, except for the first three or so songs, the twee elements are largely absent, and so is the boy-girl vocal harmonizing that make the group so wonderfully appealing. Hello Sadness is a very masculine record, then; one that gazes at the belly and one that is bridled with a pop-punk sensibility that injects a sense of anger into the record. In fact, Gareth’s staccato machine-gun delivery has been slowed down just a tad, which seems to be an effort to draw further attention to the lovelorn lyrics. Hello Sadness is a very confessional and autobiographical record, overall; one that might cause a sense of discomfort in some listeners for all of its brute honesty and unflinching emotion. It is also a very studio-created album: if you listen closely, you can hear the edit points, particularly on album opener “By Your Hand”, where vocals or instrumentation has been spliced into the mix. In the long run, Hello Sadness might be the most complex and adventurous disc that the group has arguably created. However, it has its share of failure, particularly as one moves deeper and deeper into it.
Hello Sadness gets off on a number of thrilling high points. “By Your Hand”, which opens with the caustic lines “By your hand is the only end I foresee / I have been dreaming, been dreaming about me”, is a soaring indie rock anthem that nestles closely between the widescreen pop approach taken by bands bursting at the seams with group members such as Broken Social Scene and I’m From Barcelona, and deeply burrows deeply into your subconscious. “Songs About Your Girlfriend” is even better: it’s a pop punk number with churning, dissonant guitars ripped directly from the songbook of Kevin Drew. It is perhaps the angriest thing that Los Campesinos! has committed to tape, and the band sounds particularly charged and fired up on this track – prompting the listener to fumble for the 11 notch on their stereo volume control. The title track is another Broken Social Scene sound-a-like, one that churns and simmers with a particular virile brand of vile, a real kiss-off to seemingly unrequited love. Those first three songs that open the album are knock-outs and are vibrant and buoyant in their infectiousness, but then the band begins to slowly draw the blinds and move into much bleaker territory. “Life Is A Long Time” (“My brown eyes are two pools of mud / Resting in two dark moons that turn the tide into a flood” intones Gareth) is a jaunty stab at brooding jangle rock, that turns into a minor key shoegazer of a chorus, and here you can hear a late ‘70s Fleetwood Mac influence really bubbling to the fore. The five-minute long “Every Defeat a Divorce (Three Lions)” is similarly downcast, as if the members of Belle and Sebastian had forgotten to take some anti-depressants before heading into the recording studio. With its chiming guitars, wavering violins and sleek production, the song is a memorable one (“My memories are sepia / but the photograph is not” boasts Gareth in a particularly noteworthy line) that, once again, just burrows itself deep into your cranium and refuses to budge or give up space.
While the first five songs are particularly endearing, things soon begin to quickly fall apart in the second half of the album. The main fault is that the band begins to forget that they are Los Campesinos! and not the Cure in full-on depressive mode. Or, more simply, the songs just aren’t there: the melodies aren’t really as affecting or memorable, making Hello Sadness a very front-loaded record, one that saves the abstraction for its latter half. The two-minute-plus “Hate for the Island” is an unfinished sketch of a song sans drums and is a harrowing listen with its dissonant guitars wailing away as Gareth belts away some self-absorbed lyricisms. “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope” is a song that wouldn’t be out of place on Side One, and is the second half’s clear highlight – and it is worth noting that it is the only place on the album where we actually hear some female vocals that aren’t relegated to background status. However, Gareth here tips himself into further Robert Smith style petulant and depressive self-absorption: “The black bird sits atop my gut / Spreads its wings to fly / My shoulders back, my jaw pushed out, my stomach sucked in / Its wingtips push across my lungs / And fill them full of feathers / But the brushstrokes feel like earth pokes into my skin.” And then, Hello Sadness falls apart from there. “To Tundra” is a bluesy trudge across a barren landscape that is about as anti-twee that you can get. “Baby I Got the Death Rattle” stomps at a snail’s pace with Gareth’s vocals pinging between the left and right speaker to create an interesting stereophonic effect – a bit of window dressing to cover the fact that there’s an absolute absence of any riffs. Worse yet, “Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. II” is a gloomy end to the album that similarly crawls like a tortoise trying to get to the finish line.
Ergo, Los Campesinos! had a very strong EP’s worth of material on Hello Sadness, as five or six of the songs make a mark; the rest is largely filler on an album stretched out to a 40 minute runtime. It does mark a sonic turn of sorts away from their giddy earlier sound, and some might be pleased that the band is not simply content to retread past glories. However, Hello Sadness really feels like a final album from the band: Los Campesinos! sound tired at points here, and Gareth has lost a great deal of his wit and satirical edge in his wordplay. While it starts out with a quite a bang, Hello Sadness is a hard-to-listen to record and it settles uncomfortably into uncharted territory that might have been best to not traverse so soon after the emotional wounds inflicted on its lyricist/singer. A lot might be made of this being the ultimate indie rock break-up album, but there are large tracks in the backend that are simply unlistenable, and the only pleasure or benefit that the record brings might just be self-catharsis on the end of its creators. The maniac energy that made Los Campesinos! so special is so largely absent here in the record’s second half, the only use that Drinkify’s Red Bull suggestion would have is to simply stay awake while the group unearths its personal demons and shackles itself to a weary slow-tempo beat in its latter stages. Clearly, from the evidence here, the band, and perhaps less so the listeners, could use a really good stiff drink – to better drown its sorrows and to prevent its jaded worldview from seeping into its lyrics and music in what must have been a difficult piece of art to create.
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