Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Hello Sadness by Los Campesinos!


With a name like Los Campesinos!, you might Latin American fusion or politicized Sandinista-era Clash. But aside from a strong similarity in tone between vocalist Gareth (they’ve all kept their last names secret) and Joe Strummer from The Clash, you’ll hear something different: a kind of joyous, shambolic noise pop. On Hello Sadness, they give it the ol’ college try, but the results don’t always rise above the noise.

In a way I’m not surprised. It’s a seven piece – an awkward size – and they’ve gone through several personnel changes in a relatively short career. Everyone contributes à la Broken Social Scene (on whose Arts and Crafts label the first two Los Campesinos! albums came out). And just to add to the collective “band above individual members” concept, they all use the last name Campesino. So it’s ironic that a number of their songs sound like two or three separate threads trying to meet and just not getting together. You’ll hear this same thing with BSS, especially live, but something amazing almost always seems to appear, sometimes just when you’ve lost hope. That’s the exception here, not the rule, unfortunately.

It starts strongly. The opening track, “By Your Hand,” is glorious shambles, a perky keyboard augmented by crunchy guitars and sloppy handclaps, the perfect accompaniment to lyrics about kissing a girl with her hands down his pants and her vomiting down his rental tux. “Songs About Your Girlfriend” isn’t as strong but is still a nice slice of guitar pop, as is the title track (with nice loose BSS-like high-hat work).

Things go off the rails in the middle. “Life Is a Long Time” is a nice guitar figure desperately searching for a melody. There are at least three vocal lines here, and all of them are underdeveloped. Repeating a poor melody four times doesn’t make it any better. The next song, “Every Defeat a Divorce (Three Lions),” starts promisingly but ultimately fails to deliver.

Part of the issue is the vocalist. Gareth’s voice can grate. His range is limited and there’s not much expression to his tone. Sometimes this absolutely kills a song, as on closer “Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. II.” It’s got potential with a haunting guitar line and nice almost spoken background vocals. But his voice just doesn’t rise to the level of the material. It’s the same with “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope”: I love the music – great energetic guitar work and drumming, and the chorus (sung by one of the female members of the band) is good – but the verses (admittedly lacking in melody anyway) are poorly served by Gareth’s voice.

It's nice to throw everything at a song. It's nice to try jams. It's nice to bring different things to a song. But if the parts don't add up to a whole, then maybe it's time for more work or a stronger producer.

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