Heart of stone, rind so tough it’s crazy / that’s why they call me the avocado, baby. Shouted alternately by a cheerleading squad and lead singer, this hook appropriately announces the return of Los Campesionos! in the single “Avocado, Baby” from their new album No Blues. It’s a little bit ridiculous, catchy and self-deprecating, and classic Campesinos. Before you stop reading this because you hate music reviews, music in general, me, or, all of the above, bear with me for a moment. The latest from Los Campesinos! is a triumph of deft lyricism that proves intelligence and innovation needn’t be sacrificed to make a great pop record.
This Welsh group is typically categorized as “indie pop,” but Los Campesinos! is so defiant of sticking to one sound that labels seem to miss an essential element of their music’s character. The instrumentation is drum-heavy with an active horns section and expert guitar, piano—hell, even glockenspiel riffs. An electronic influence is clear, but LC!’s synth sounds are too messy and soulful to be called electronica. Vocalist Gareth David is a challenge, and frequently shouts, whimpers, and moans lyrics rife with football allusions, masturbation, and a general attitude that nothing is off-limits. While this sounds like a band that wouldn’t make for easy listening, I assure you the quick-witted lyrics of a guy who still works at a cemetery put to independently interesting, energetic compositions make for genuinely fun music.
Since forming in 2006, Los Campesinos! has released five full albums, a handful of EPs, and a few singles available to subscribers of the band’s website. The most succinct description of Los Campesinos! is that their music does not apologize or care if you like it. The band’s first album Hold on Now, Youngster established a precedent for angst-meets-kitsch lyrics at work with upbeat melodies poised at any moment for a spastic drum interlude. This album also got me in trouble in the winter of 2007 when I used my mom’s credit card to download it.
The band’s third and fourth albums, Romance is Boring and Hello Sadness respectively, are despairing and abrasive, yet utterly endearing and unforgettable with each subsequent listen. That’s the catch with LC! —you have to make it to the second or third play of a track in order to make sense of the onslaught of instruments and styles, glutted with confessions and emotional outpourings. Romance Is Boring rejected conventional melodic structures and took on a stream of consciousness lyrical style. The album opens with “In Medias Res” a half-spoken song with a tangential, frenetic breakdown in the middle, breathtaking swell of a horn climax, and an ending that is unexpectedly tender. Essentially, the album is a fuck-you to accessibility and the band’s earlier cuteness, which discouraged many new listeners, but was embraced by fans for its raw lyrics and musical ambition.
Commercial appeal may have suffered at the hand of LC!’s exploration of darker territory, but David’s lyrical ability came through in both efforts. The writing is feverish and often overextends itself, but it is nonetheless powerful—generally free of filler, predictable repetition, and trite rhyme scheme, and both albums’ booklets read more like poetry than song lyrics.
After four albums, Los Campesinos! looked as if it were on the verge of becoming a talented band followed closely only by existing fans. Romance is Boring and Hello Sadness left LC! in a rut—one that produced good music, but a rut nonetheless. LC! defied the constraints of external genres, but had become limited because of their own self-inflicted prescription of sound. Then, on October 29th, No Blues. First of all, the title is a good sign for those looking for a more positive LC! record, though not without a healthy dose of irony. The album is fresh from outset, and discernibly more hopeful, a matured remastering of LC!’s infectious riffs and catchy, quirky lyrics. The lyrical accomplishment of previous albums was not lost on No Blues, but Gareth David pared down his lyrics in a way that allowed the music to impress in its own right.
What I find refreshing about No Blues is that good music and intelligent lyrics aren’t mutually exclusive. This was accomplished in the best songs on LC!’s earlier albums but never so consistently as this album. “As Lucerne/ The Low”, the 6th track and arguably the climax (or nadir, depending) of No Blues, opens with the bold claim, “There is no blues that could be as heartfelt as mine.” This wounded cry over crashing piano and strong, deliberate percussion catches LC! doing what it does best. It’s a pretty presumptuous statement, and yet undeniably relatable to anyone who has ever thought no one has ever felt like I do right now. David goes on to confess, “The low is what I came for,” which, to be honest, is what brings dedicated fans back to LC! A major part of the band’s attraction is that there are these incredible lows, gritty snapshots of David’s messed up love life, that are unwilling to be boring or become dirges. David uses an unusually strong rhyme scheme on this track that keeps tempo with the clipping melody—the song is so bright that its dark theme bites without becoming clunky.
Trust me, the lows flow from No Blues, only this time they are more self-aware, less self-indulgent, and less willing to accept the totality and impenetrability of depression. Gareth David’s lyrics are as interested with death as ever, but more out of curiosity and richness of imagery than morbidity, which works beautifully in “What Death Leaves Behind,” a song that uses all manner of imagery that would come across terribly macabre with anyone else. Here, the sound is light, and David’s vocals are as mature and even conventional as they have ever been. The lyrics are decidedly all related to some aspect of death, including cremation, burial, the Plague, and drying Colosseum blood, and yet the conclusion of the song is that love conquers death. The chorus ends with the line, “No need to remind me what death leaves behind me,” and the resolution comes later with, “What death leaves behind, death leaves behind love,” and then repetition of the line “We will flower again.” Flower again, indeed they have.
Lyricism doesn’t equate to beautiful music necessarily, and oftentimes a band is noticeably stronger in one regard, but LC! manages to get both music and lyrics right. Whether you’re looking for music that revels in misery or just something to dance to that doesn’t also insult your intelligence, LC! will have you singing/shouting along. Los Campesinos!’s No Blues is dark, smart, and shouty—a mature progression of the band’s sound for old fans, and an accessible place to start for new listeners.