The rise and fall and rise of L.A. rockers the Campfire Girls would be the stuff of cheesy melodrama if it weren’t incredibly harrowing and true. Maybe an album review isn’t the best place to wax philosophic about the band’s history—“Just get to the part where you tell me if their new album is worth downlo-, I mean, buying!”—but the Campfire Girls intend for their history to inform Tell Them Hi, and I’d be remiss not to discuss it.
Here’s the Cliffs Notes version: A guy named Christian Stone moves to Los Angeles, parties, meets some other guys (bassist Andrew Clark and drummer Pikus) and the three form the Campfire Girls. Buzz builds quickly, they release a few singles, and sign with Interscope Records, who releases their wide-eyed debut, DeLongpre. Immediately, the wheels fall off the band, as Stone and Clark succumb to drugs, they’re too effed up to tour in support of DeLongpre, the band breaks up, and Stone ends up living in a van, possibly down by the river. All of this happens in the span of a year. By point of comparison: A year ago, I was writing CD reviews.
Clark and Stone finally get sober. Clark joins up with the Bicycle Theft, opens for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and meets Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland, who tells Clark he loved the Campfire Girls and that he should get back with Stone, who is working at an L.A. Kinko’s. The irony that a drug-ravaged band could be re-energized with the help of Scott Weiland apparently was lost on both Clark and Stone. The two re-formed, met ex-Giant Sand guitarist Mike Semple who joined their ranks, changed drummers (Pikus, out; Kelli Scott, in) and miraculously got a second chance from Interscope to record and release Tell Them Hi. And with all that backstory, the album doesn’t collapse under itself. (Oh yeah, the album…)
Tell Them Hi is meant to be a deeply personal document from the band—going to hell and back, having friends die young (the album is dedicated to a now-deceased friend who introduced Semple to Clark and Stone), relying on Scott Weiland for sound career advice—so why is so much of Tell Them Hi faceless? Given that Weiland himself helped out with production duties, and contributes occasional backing vocals, it’s no surprise that the Campfire Girls sound like STP, minus the psychedelic/glam crunch. And of course without that, STP would have been Silverchair.
Even with all the hard times (see self-explanatory titles like “Junkman”, “Incomplete”, “Broken Tooth”, and “Tragic End”), the album’s best moments come not from the lyrics, but from guitarist Semple, whose solos supercharge no-frills rockers like “Junkman”, “Post-Coital”, and “Incomplete”. And I’ll be damned if Semple isn’t doing a spot-on J Mascis impression on the otherwise ho-hum “Make It”. Let’s be clear: the songs rock. The Campfire Girls aren’t shoegazing mope-rockers, lamenting the hand they’ve been dealt. But too much of Tell Them Hi is slightly scuffed-up alt-rock, à la Third Eye Blind. And the embarrassing thing is that Third Eye Blind pens better heroin tunes. The poppy “Someday” could be any number of interchangeable rock bands, while “Pedestal” is those bands’ attempt to sound heavy and moody.
None of the songs on Tell Them Hi are unlistenable, and if you’re lamenting the loss of Stone Temple Pilots, there are worse ways to fill the gap. It’s just that Tell Them Hi‘s batch of songs seem to lack the gut punch that Clark and Stone intend for them to have. And while that may smack of kicking a band that has been down, perish the thought—no mediocre review can cheapen the fact that the band has survived numerous tribulations and have emerged as better people for it.