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Party With Me, Punters

Los Campesinos! Takes Indie Pop Back by Writing Good Songs

Los Campesinos! are outstanding in their field.

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 1/14/2009

Los Campesinos!

The Ottobar, Jan. 15

For more information visit theottobar.com

At first glance, indie-pop collective Los Campesinos! appears to have stacked the deck against themselves. The Cardiff, Wales, septet chose a cultural eyebrow-raiser of a moniker--the plural form of the Spanish word for farmworkers--that has nothing to do, whatsoever, with its own British and Russian national heritages. Adding cheek to impropriety, they've tacked an exclamation mark on at the end and left off the inverted, preceding one that would've made sense according to Spanish grammar. Song titles are ungainly, too-precious punny, or both. And while taking the name of one's band as a last name seemed at least mildly clever when the Ramones did it, the conceit has only grown moldier since: a "secret identity" pose that doubles as a knowing, flippant wink. The first track on their debut full-length, Hold on Now, Youngster, is titled "Death to Los Campesinos!"

Give 'em a chance, though, and you'll likely be floored, superficiality be damned. The two albums Los Campesinos! released last year, both issued by Arts and Crafts--April's Youngster and November's We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed--are raging hormonal hotbeds teeming with hostile smirks, smart-aleck attitude, and more twinkling xylophone runs than you can shake a Godspeed You Black Emperor 12-inch at. It's as if these seven recent Cardiff University grads--by mid-2007, they'd all donned and doffed caps and gowns--absorbed lessons learned from a cavalcade of 1990s/2000s orchestrally oriented indie outfits (think Architecture in Helsinki, Broken Social Scene) and figured out how to work strings, horns, and pianos into power-pop as accents that amplify and calcify their bookish, rock-geek fury.

Los Campesinos! are brutally self-aware in the way that twentysomethings often are just prior to becoming susceptible to sentimentality's ravages and responsibility's chafing shackles: the observational, navel-gazing musings of front man/keyboardist Gareth Campesinos! recall Art Brut, while honeyed guitar lines that shrug through lazily drawn frameworks even as they wrap themselves around your days like super glue gobs hint at an obsession with the most popular alt-rock band ever to emerge from Stockton, Calif.

"Our biggest influence is Pavement--we are all big fans of Pavement," drummer Ollie Campesinos! confirms during a December e-mail interview from Cardiff, where the band is gearing up for a U.S. tour. "There are other influences, too, such as Grandaddy and Yo La Tengo. We are fans of Art Brut. Gareth does enjoy Eddie Argos' lyrics, so I suppose they could be a slight influence, but not a massive one."

Flanked by his bandmates--Ollie, vocalist/keyboardist Aleks Campesinos!, guitarists Tom and Neil Campesinos!, bassist Ellen Campesinos!, and violinist/keyboardist Harriet Campesinos!--Gareth hyperventilates wildly, unleashing torrents of Ritalin-deprived anxiety that sometimes take discursive, conversational turns. Mood-swing-y "Don't Tell Me to Do the Math(s)"--where the refutation of a common phrase goes TMI gonzo--Gareth stages a populist action in his mind ("Meanwhile, at home, back in communist Russia/ Well, only on my headphones/ We'll plot a march into the town hall"), while Aleks goofs into stoner-mathlete delusions ("We'll maybe drown in Dewey decimals, but leave our shoes outside the door.")

"Nothing says I miss you/ Like the poetry carved in your door with a Stanley knife," they harmonize on "My Year In Lists," which equates mailed letters with sexual aphrodisiacs and plays around with the concept of obsessive, High Fidelity-esque listmaking. "Knee Deep at ATP," which slingshots between windmilling guitar blitz and somnolent bow-on-violin-string bliss, is, of course, about being knee deep at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival and, further, confronting your girl with photographic evidence that she was holding hands with some dweeb in a K Records T-shirt. Keyboard bloops expand and contract in New Wave competition at the outset of "This Is How You Spell, HAHAHA, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics" looks askance at the idea of romantic love while "We Are Accelerated Readers" is a harsher, more personal take on the same theme.

And that's just Youngster. Angelic, unexpected instrumental "Between an Erupting Earth and an Exploding Sky" offers a thermal, pitch-shifted escape hatch from all the collegiate insanity. But on Doomed's rollicking, crashing title track, Gareth flings darts at some unspecified rival: "You say he got his teeth fixed?/ I'm gonna break them/ I've got a heart on fire."

With its porch-swing pace, golden, woozy feedback, and noncorporeal oooo-aaaaahahahs, "Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1" finds Los Campesinos! at their most Pavement-y; Gareth lets the see-sawing rhythms dictate his cadence and turns slacker-poetic: "I spend my last six-fifty in a public phonebox/ Graffiti genitalia from ceiling-to-floor/ Played reckless racket like a fruit machine."

The two albums are equally fun and absurd, and it's easier to think of them as two halves of a whole than as individual statements. Whether it was wise to release both of them within the same calendar year, though--whether Los Campesinos! overplayed its hand or adroitly moved to secure its newfound international audience--is another question entirely.

"We enjoy playing new songs, and some on Youngster we'd been playing since we started," Ollie explains. "So we wanted to play something new. We didn't want to tour the same album for two years and we wanted audiences to have something new to hear. Doomed was originally just going to be an EP, but it turned into an album."

Los Campesinos!, it turns out, aren't all that different from other rock bands that get along well and hit the almost-big time. According to Ollie, they met at college and are "one big happy family." Songs originate as ideas put forth by a guitarist (Tom), and the rest of the band builds upon his template. They advise listeners to "interpret the lyrics however you want, but don't take them too seriously" and big-up the OG band that gave them an opening tour slot (Broken Social Scene) and helped pave the way to a recording contract.

The shared stage name was adopted for reasons of privacy, convenience, and to further convey the group's merry spirit, Ollie says. "[Fans] can say 'Los Campesinos!' how they want, but it does suggest a bit of excitement. We get excited a lot, and we like to have a good time."

Repeated, gushing praise for newbie Glasgow act Danananananaykroyd aside, Ollie's answers come across as indie-demigod boilerplate. In this sense, they're a lot like those superficial affectations that stand between band and listener: Once the discs are revolving, all is forgiven. H

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