Best of 2010 Errata, Vol. 3: Los Campesinos!

Posted in Music on December 9th, 2011 by Tom

It’s December already, and even though plenty of big outfits are pushing their year-end lists, I’m still not done with 2010 yet!

For a long while, my eyes mentally registered the glib Welsh indie rockers not as ‘Los Campesions!’ but as ‘band with the Spanish name and the exclamation point’. After hearing the new single off their 2011 effort (review pending), I decided to see how last year’s record sounded, for context.

Actually I ended up buying it on impulse, and it seems my instincts were pretty spot-on. Romance Is Boring is a phenomenal record. If The Wombats are comedians who also happen to be solid musicians, Los Campesinos! are frenetic indie rockers who coincidentally have a wicked sense of humor.

Nearly every track has something notable or interesting or just fun that to do my typical line-by-line would be for too much, so I’ll do my best to pick representative examples.

The first 2/3 of the album almost seem to be a proof-of-concept. Right out of the gate, the first lyrics of ‘In Media Res’,

But let’s talk about your for a minute
With the vomit at your gullet
From the half-bottle of vodka /
that we’d stolen from the optic

Brash and tactless, the group assumes an instant familiarity with the listener, already singing about gross body things inside the first 60 seconds! It’s hard to criticize the language as crass though when it’s accompanied by the finesse of both a string and xylophone accompaniment.

My favorite track from this phase is ‘There Are Listed Buildings‘. While its “ba baaaaa”s are perhaps a little too evocative of DCFC’s ‘Sound of Settling’, the varied vocal textures, bombastic trumpets, and continued employ of the xylophone more than make up for it.

‘There Are Listed Buildings’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

It’s also worth stating that the use of the refrain lyric “I think I’d do it for love, if it were not for the money” is delivered with such swagger and energy that the whole damn song could nearly stand on that alone. The track is a compact argument for why LC! demand your attention.

The title track is a lot of fun, and has some of my favorite guitar parts. Following that is a series of songs that are impressively consistent insofar as being cleverly written and exciting to listen to; connecting them in places are also a few transitional tracks, which work well.

In what I think to be somewhat uncommon, all the best material on Romance Is Boring is at the back end. The last five songs are distinct in that they meet or exceed the level of craftsmanship seen up until this point, but additionally carry some emotional component to them as well.

‘A Heat Rash In The Shape of the Show Me State; Or, Letters From Me to Charlotte’ has a narrative which begins tongue-in-cheek to be sure, but the cries of the backing vocals “It will never be the same!” along with the content of said letter to Charlotte in the final verse makes for a captivating, even enthralling, listen.

The content takes an even more grave and serious turn in ‘The Sea is a Good Place to Think About the Future’, which tells a really heart-breaking story, and opens up the leitmotif concerning the ocean that pervades the last few songs. It’s a perfect example of how slow songs don’t have to be boring.

In the penultimate slot is hands down my favorite song on the record, ‘This Is A Flag. There Is No Wind.

‘This Is A Flag. There Is No Wind.’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Any song whose opening line is a screaming chorus of “CAN WE ALL PLEASE JUST CALM THE FUCK DOWN!?” is bold to be sure, but to get away with it in all seriousness has got to be classified as a work of art. Lyrical wordplay in each of the versus, but in particular the chorus, is top-notch:

The story of the winter I forgot how to speak:
My mind was like your nation’s flag /
but my breeze was too weak.
How they dragged me to the hospital /
said I had gone deaf.
But I heard everything they said /
it’s just I had no interest.

Slidey-guitars, garnished with a perfect hint of synth… it’s just awesome. Closing things down is ‘Coda: A Burn Scar In the Shape of the Sooner State’. Never minding the silly theme of state-shaped skin conditions, the forlorn repetition of “I can’t believe you chose the mountains every time I chose the sea…” is a really somber, introspective note to end what started out as such a brash and wild record.

Romance Is Boring will win your heart and your mind. It’s equal parts head-banging and thought-provoking. It’s hard to praise the Los Campesinos! collective enough for such a unique and fun LP.

Los Campesinos! – Romance Is Boring


Breaks In The Armor

Posted in Music on December 3rd, 2011 by Tom

Me and Crooked Fingers go back a ways, but probably not far enough. I first heard ‘Big Darkness’, off Red Devil Dawn, driving home late one night about 4 years ago. I ended up really liking that record, and it’s 2008 follow-up, Dignity and Shame. (Unbeknownst to me that Eric Bachmann also headed up the quite popular Archers of Loaf for most of the 1990s. You learn something new every day!)

In any case, Bachmann’s present project, Crooked Fingers, continues to become more and more refined. Breaks in the Armor is probably the group’s most accessible output to date, as is evidenced by approachable tracks such at ‘Typhoon’ and ‘Bad Blood‘.

‘Bad Blood’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

In spite of effortlessly getting away with over-the-top lyrics, such as the opening,

Went to see my fortune teller
To see which way the winds were blowin’
She said you’ll probably get the cancer
She said you’ll surely die alone

I don’t really think of ‘Bad Blood’ as a depressing or sad song. It’s sound would seem at home as the live accompaniment to a Friday night at some south-central dive bar, thought the song has considerably more heart that most of that fare.

The trailing echoes at the end of ‘Bad Blood’ are a segue into ‘The Hatchet’, a subdued, bleak number whose texture evokes a recording covered in dust, meant to be forgotten. It’s just long enough to kinda give you the chills, but short enough not to belabor the point. It acts as a perfect counterpoint to ‘The Counterfeiter’, a surprisingly bounding track about deception of the heart.

And of course, we never make it quite through a Crooked Fingers record without a song like ‘Heavy Hours’, which is the stripped down no-frills quiet-time Eric-is-going-to-make-you-sad song. If you’re into that, it’s here. If not, it doesn’t dominate the album.

My favorite point of the album is the three song run that begins with ‘Went to the City’. Heavy drums and a piano accompaniment that keeps pace give Bachmann’s vocals a runway from which they really soar. The production of the scrambled radio sounds containing vitriolic outbursts sounded to my ear (for some reason) an homage to R.E.M.. After this, we drop the volume down a notch to ‘Your Apocalypse’, which I can only describe as ‘urgent’, but in the best way.

‘War Horses’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Finally we arrive at ‘War Horses‘ (not to be confused with the tear-jerker film War Horse in theaters this holiday season). The song begins as a dirge-like march composed of minimal instrumentation. Slowly though, sounds are added, and the hard shell of the song melts a bit. Closer to its interior as the song peaks, Bachmann shouts,

Bracing for all hell
For their salvo to hammed down
Bad breaks in the armor
Far too weak now to turn around

The militaristic imagery of the song, and smashing percussive strikes to match, make the song feel really grandiose and epic, even with it’s short run-time.

Breaks in the Armor is a really consistently good listening experience. If you’ve liked even one or two Crooked Fingers tracks in the past, this album is sure to please. It’s pensive and thoughtful in many places, but still rocks where it needs to.

Crooked Fingers – Breaks In The Armor