Monday, January 25, 2010
Album: Romance Is Boring
Wichita/Arts & Crafts, 2010
Rating: ********* (9/10)
Friends, the news is bittersweet: Los Campesinos! are cute no more. That shouldn't be a big surprise, given the leaps in maturity the band made within the few months between Hold On Now Youngster and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. Here, with over a year under their belts, Los Campesinos! continue on their dramatic trajectory. But even with the band's explicit attempts to distance themselves from their twee past and their glockenspiel, it would have been hard to see the trajectory reaching quite as far as it has on Romance is Boring, which often barely sounds like an "indie" album at all. Instead, you can hear echoes of every UK pop great of the last 30 years and could almost imagine this band taking their place among them.
Although their compositions and arrangements have grown, the most noticeable change is in the voices. Gareth (gotta use first names, the band doesn't use their last) has changed in his boyish holler for a professional, adult sound - not that the pitch has changed, just the tone. For her part, Aleks has also found a bit richer, more developed voice. Los Campesinos! are all grown up.
And the lyrics are grown up too. The band revealed their darker side on We Are Beautiful, but here, it hits full force and in the context of a fully developed LP (We Are Beautiful was more like an LP-length EP). In a minor key breakdown in "Media Res," Gareth announces "I'm leaving my body to science / Not medical but physics." Maybe this line could have fit with the band's indie pop days, but the delivery makes clear this is no joke but rather a serious meditation on mortality and physical decay. Later in the album comes its masterpiece, "The Sea Is a Good Place to Think About the Future." This track has been floating around for a while so maybe you've heard it. But if not, and especially in the context of the full album, it hits like a ton of bricks. Describing a self-destructive friend, the narration comes restrained, matter-of-fact tone with which we have to deal with life's most horrifying tragedies if we are going to survive them.
It's a far cry from "You! Me! Dancing!"
The musical developments keep up with the emotional strides. Much of the credit must go to producer John Goodmanson (Blonde Redhead, Death Cab, Nada Surf, Sleater-Kinney, etc.), who has beefed up the band's sound from the tinkering twee-punk of 2008 to an almost grandiose sound. The complex parts are still there, but even the glockenspiel solo on "Media Res" does not sound toyish, it's dark and alarming. Who knew glockenspiel could be dark and alarming?
However, while Goodmanson's skills did push the band to the next level, they can take even more credit themselves - their songwriting has become infinitely more sophisticated. The downside is that some songs are not quite as tight as the band's poppier material, but finally, the band's post-rock origins shine clearly, with swells of noise, counterpart melodies, vast choruses and subtle instrumentals. As with much post rock, the compositions seem to closer in mindset to classical than to the rest of pop/rock, but it's not overkill. The band reigns it in and keeps every song focused, without crossing the five-minute mark even once. The album even includes a short instrumental track ("200-102") and a distant, echoey post-shoegaze interlude with vocals ("Heart Swells/100-1").
I'm not entirely wild about the unison on the title track and I have trouble following some of the songs early in the second half, but even despite its rough patches, the album is a powerful statement. From the hyper-distorted, raging opening of "Plan A" (the group's most aggressive song to date) to the gentle ebbing of the guitars in "The Sea Is a Good Place," from Aleks's cynical "We've Got Your Back" (which lyrically and musically revisits and seems to attack "Drop It Doe Eyes" on the band's debut) to the understated closing track, burned on the edges with static, Romance Is Boring is an album to be reckoned with. Hold on now, young and old alike.