Los Campesinos!: Hold on Now, Youngster…
Here's a riddle for you: How is a promising Welsh septet like an American political candidate?
I really should never have asked to review this record. I am In Trouble here. How much trouble? Reader, I am tempted to give Hold on Now, Youngster… a 10. This is a position that no reasonable, responsible critic is supposed to wind up in.
The impulse was, I suppose, understandable enough: the debut by Welsh septet Los Campesinos! shows up on the assignment list, I've been listening to it a lot recently, I ask for it. But now… You see, I am of the firm belief (as a fan of music criticism as well as a practitioner) that our goal here is not just to tell you that we like Record X or hate Band Y or what have you, but to get under the skin of our experiences and try and give you a sense of what these things feel like, both because that's more useful to you, the reader, and also just because it's more interesting. But I'm too busy pumping my goddamned fist to these songs to do so.
Los Campesinos! are practically designed to be catnip for a certain kind of listener (although, cunningly enough, given that type of listener, they never give off the faintest whiff of calculation). They write ridiculously knotted, satisfying hooks (spearheaded by Tom's guitar, but often held aloft by at least four or five of the band at a time, on guitar, glockenspiel, violin, keyboard, voice, etc, etc -- all of whom go by the surname Campesinos, by the way), they have great lyrics, great videos, their live show is phenomenal, and most importantly and intangibly (like all great bands) they somehow summon up a world through their music, until it feels as if everything in life is here. At least, while you listen.
Take "The International Tweexcore Underground" (not on the album, bless 'em -- when was the last time a band you loved announced a good album with a just-as-good standalone single? The '80s?): It's kind of a song about how important music is, and it's kind a song rejecting some of the pigeonholes people might want to fit the band into, and it's kind of a song about love. The band, lead vocalist Gareth in particular, delight in doing this sort of thing. There are songs on Hold on Now, Youngster… about misogyny in music, the sexiness of old fashioned correspondence, dead deer on the side of roads, meeting girls at festivals, why twee people are annoying, being reasonably practical (and also being so practical as to lose all belief in love), but what the whole wad is really about is being young and crammed full to bursting with life. Even as they sing "When the smaller picture / Is the same as the bigger picture / You know that you're fucked", it's hard to get disheartened to any real extent. Not because the problems will be overcome, but because, damn it, everything expressed in this album is so pure and real, and it's all so frequently clever and so consistently high energy that if naysayers claim it'll give you a headache, that's just because it's good for you!
See? I can't do this. I don't even want to talk about highlights, because that could go on forever; I was lucky enough to see the first North American show the band ever played, at the Hillside Festival here in Guelph, Ontario, and it was practically a conversion experience, but that means I've been singing frantically along to these songs ever since. I keep waiting, with a nervous fear borne out of memories of albums I no longer listen to, for the moment when I burn myself out on the band, but it never comes. A co-worker asks to hear them at work and I become insanely productive for 40 minutes. I just put it on now for a last sober listen before committing my 'official' thoughts to screen, and I wound up singing along to the entirety of "Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks".
So permit me to make one last insane comparison: Los Campesinos! are the closest thing indie rock has to a Barack Obama right now. No, really. Both hearken back to elements of what you might call the good old days, if you're of the right persuasion, but also seem fresh and new. Both are skillful in their rhetoric and excite large crowds. Both started off strong (the Sticking Fingers Into Sockets EP is synonymous to the bit of the campaign where people started thinking "My god, he has a chance!"), then shockingly enough got stronger, retaining the core of their earlier promise (in Los Campesinos!'s case, that'd be "Don't Tell Me to Do the Math(s)" and "You! Me! Dancing!"), and both currently hold out the near impossible hope of returning glory and honour to something long held to be moribund and corrupt (by me, anyway -- indie rock has more defenders than America's government, I'm sure). And while in both cases the rational part of my mind would agree that they'll probably never live up to their current promise, I can't deny the idealistic/emotional side of me has gotten caught up in it. When Gareth sings about listening to music and reading literature at the same time, or "the hieroglyphics the fan club sent us", I feel the first faint tinges of the kind of feeling I can only imagine fans in the past had about bands that seemed like they promised the world. The all-consuming feeling that nothing before or after what we have now was or will be as good, as significant as this.
Los Campesinos! are the first band of my own generation I have ever had real, honest-to-goodness faith in. I believe in these guys, and I swear to you that I have the standard issue Internet-scribe pragmatic shield against hype. Like a lot of contemporaries, overly explicit proclamations of ambition/belief/love tend to make me squeamish. But I have started buttonholing friends and making them listen to this album. Cynics and those who just don't feel it may claim instead that this is, at best, just a collection of good songs, with witty lyrics, without much dynamic variation; but I tell you today, five or ten or 20 years from now, the only way we won't be speaking of Hold on Now, Youngster… as a classic will be if Los Campesinos! have already topped it.