Los Campesinos!: Sick Scenes

Of all the indie pop bands to emerge in the mid-2000s, Los Campesinos! is one of the most enduring and consistently enjoyable groups to date. Hold On Now, Youngster and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed were clamorous and sentimental –their heartbreak carried out through excited vocals and energetic guitar. Their next two albums, Hello Sadness and No Blues  continued the trend of energetic indie pop and heartfelt lyrics –Los Campesinos! executed either album greatly and while you’d expect the group to begin tuckering out at a decade, it seems as if they’ve only come forward with more tenacity than ever.

Los Campesinos! latest album, Sick Scenes is not just another fantastic addition to the library but an album surprisingly loyal, exuding an energy that first won hearts years ago. It’s thoughtful, featuring broader and stronger lyrics. At times the band pushes their borders and then stresses their hallmarks –making for a friendly but thrilling listen. The album makes a fantastic treat for fans and occasional listeners alike.

Sick Scenes begins cinematically with an out-then-in to the club sort of distortion –you’re muffled and you hear the melodious, “ooh’s” of the band building a poppy chorus line and Passion Pit is taking notes. “Renato Dall’ Ara” features an odd transition and does quite a deal to shake up the expectations early on but soon enough Gareth comes to our rescue and helps propel the album forward. Overall, the song is catchy, enjoyable, and sort of exciting. Sick Scenes introduces itself as different –but good.

And then something odd happens, Los Campesinos! do some soul searching and pull out what sounds like an honest throwback. “Sad Suppers” soothes the nerves of anxious fans and pulls out an energizing jingle. The percussion thumps, nearing punk. The bass is prominent and the other instrumentals at this distant layer of texture. The vocals come in and it’s this competition between building mood through lyrics and the heart-charming thump of the drum. Your pulse quickens and the danceable but emotional ditty begins to sucker you in more and more.

Throughout most of Sick Scenes it seemed as if Los Campesinos! was trying to make careful decisions to both venture out and work with new material –new takes on old ideas and new opportunities to produce even greater sound. It’s easy to get skeptical but more often than not the band deliver so exceptionally well. It’s fresh and new but manages to live out the extent of whatever you could expect from the excitable indie pop band.

Most standout, for how lovely but also its uniqueness, is the melancholic “The Fall of Home.” The song begins with acoustic guitar and vocal. An ode to hometowns and their escapees begin. The musicians create some lyrical scenery and then add in more complex use of strings. It’s a gentle, sweeping, slow song laden with a sense of loss and a bite of anguish. It’s a quieted juxtaposition that, even well after the album has ended, stays with you for its somber interruption.

Despite my praise I must admit that at times I wonder if the band is stuck, musically, in the past or some kind of longing for youth. I don’t mean to actually criticize their age, but, at times Los Campesinos! seems as if they’re trying to ride the tides of old trends or whatever might be slightly popular. Melodies can be rehashed and when the group does stretch their borders, it’s sometimes at the expense of not sounding very Los Campesinos! And I’m not saying that the band has to stay lively and bright forever nor am I trying to negate my points of praise. It’s just that the aspects that make Sick Scenes most special are often its worst faults.

The worst offender, “Got Stendahl’s,” is an extreme but demonstrates the faults of Sick Scenes perfectly. The song begins with an introductory dissonance and ambience. Then boy-band vocals and keys. I want to think it’s parody, but the way the song segues forward tells me that the worst is true. Los Campesinos! indulges themselves in a dollar-store cheapness through these sections. The vocals feel sarcastic and the lyrics are a bit laughable.  “Two puckered lips and a t-shirt sun tan,” –any poeticism loses itself on this moment. But it’s worse than just that. The movement of the band feels slowed down and different –cooking cutter skewed into an ultra-generic indie pop. And while luckily the rest of the album is not like this, these moments do occur sparsely throughout. At times I questioned the ‘oooh’-ing of the opener and “5 Flucloxacillin.” Sometimes I was driven mad by the echoing chords that render the entirety of “A Slow, Slow Death” a bit predictable. The addition of horns only add to the sense that these songs are lacking –as if Los Campesinos was trying to explore new areas but fell short of that home run.

While there are disappointments, Sick Scenes is absolutely not disappointing and the album closes strong. “A Litany/Heart Swells” is slow and the band summons up components of their past. It feels like a definitive throwback and a promising one at that. At the same time, there’s a sense of development. There’s a more believable restraint in the chorus and every little buildup and every time we hear, “Heart Swells,” it feels just a bit more desperate. The song fades and the band leaves their final impression powerfully.

“Hung Empty” begins with a digital tone, the vocals flood in with deep percussive hits. The frame of the song is being built together, the guitars join in, and as each little layer comes in, the song becomes more compelling. Do you dance or do you wallow? Half way through Los Campesinos! explodes with energy, “I’m hung empty!” Convincingly, they take some time to lose momentum before repeating.  They give us one last go and it’s over and it’s kind of melancholic –because all in all, Sick Scenes is like a reminiscent letter from an old friend. It’s the end of the album –and I think I’m hung empty too.

Los Campesinos! didn’t quite hit the ball out of the park but Sick Scenes is another fantastic album. While venturing a little bit further from their traditional sound, Los Campesinos! managed to find ways to keep their indie fresh. Sometimes it’s troubling but I find it hard to say that the faults can’t be overlooked. For fans, Sick Scenes is going to be the next best thing for quite some time. Sick Scenes is everything you’d expect from Los Campesinos! tempered with experience and performed with as much energy and sincerity as ever.

Rating: 8.5/10

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