Hello Sadness - Los Campesinos
When the new Los Campesinos release came into the station, I had the same kind of feeling in my stomach that you get when an old friend comes into town for the first time in years. Sure you have a emotional connection that goes back a while, but do you have anything in common to relate to or is the visit going to be endlessly rehashing the past? Worse maybe you've grown apart in these years, you've seen their recent Facebook updates and its less Cracked.com articles and more Fox News posts by the day. The only way to know is to talk to them, find out if you can reconnect.
By no means has Los Campesinos been gone for a while, their last release, the underwhelming Romance is Boring, came out at the start of 2010, after coming out with two widely divergent albums in 2008. Still after that breakneck release schedule, it feels like a while since we've heard from them. The first track on Hello Sadness has a familiar feel to it, for LC fans it should be instantly likable. It starts off with a minor note laden 8-bit synth, and progresses nicely into a hand clapping indie arena-rock anthem sound. Still after the initial approachability of the beat and melody you notice a few things missing. Where is the multi-instrumental assault we heard on Hold on Now Youngster? Where is the coy interplay of lyrics between Gareth Campesinos and Aleksandra (she has left the band after Romance is Boring)? This interplay never comes out in this album. Its one of the fundamental problems of Hello Sadness, Gareth's vocals work as a snarky voice of a self-hating heartbroken hipster, with relief from the sugary sweet voice of Aleksandra, but on their own they can become grating. The band tries to compensate by putting in the occasional female backed chorus, but it never has the strength to break up Gareth's nasally vocals. (the exception is "The Black Bird, The Dark Slope", which was written before Aleksandra left the band) He is not aided by the lyrics of the songs. Earlier LC releases thrived on ironic hyper-literate lyrics of a grad school drop out, like The Decemberist with more Pynchon and less Melville. We get more straight up heart break on Hello Sadnesss and it desperately calls for some irony to break it up, it ventures into straight up melodrama, you never get the smirk from the band to know its okay to laugh at it. Without this awareness the album ventures dangerously into emo territory. I've always said LC reminds me of a mashup of Architecture in Helsinki and Dashboard Confessional, but its leaning a lot more toward the latter on Hello Sadness.
Just as jarring is while the band has gradually slowed down their songs with each album, this is the first one where you notice it. Songs often feel dense, with the notable exception of "Songs About Your Girldfriend" which has some of the old LC energy about it. The songs come off as more of a side project of one of the members than as a canonical work of the band. Aside from some interesting string composition on some tracks, another odd absence is an aggressive organ/synth sound or really a multi-instrumental feel that has been characteristic of the band. Even when it is present, its relegated to background duty, you don't get it leading. Listen to "Broken Heartbeats Sound like Breakbeats" off of Hold on Now Youngster and listen to any track on Hello Sadness, aside from Gareth's vocals you probably wouldn't think its the same band.
This is not to say the album is bad, but its clear that the lineup changes have distinctly changed their sound. When LC first came on the scene, they were styled as twee-punk, I don't think the moniker fits any more. Some of the songs on the album are quite good, notably the first two, "By Your Hand" and "Songs about Your Girlfriend". "To Tundra" features a digital haze that envelopes the ear and expands into a larger string arrangement that's compelling. Maybe its because I've gotten used to their new sound, but as the album progresses the sounds seem to get better after a pretty unexceptional middle. "Baby I Got the Death Rattle" may stall out in terms of energy, but the density pays off and gives the listener a bitter sing along. The final song "Dark Leaves, Light Sees pt II" is as self-indulgent as its name suggests, but almost has an early Modest Mouse sound to it, I wouldn't put it in my in a playlist, but if it came up on random I wouldn't skip it, as a novelty if nothing else.
Ultimately I might be too close to the band for objectivity. Maybe if you've never heard them before the album would come across as mature, a well constructed piece by a band sure of its abilities. To my ear though, LC has lost its overly self-confident swagger. Its on the wrong side of irony on this album, and its just not as fun to listen to as their previous pieces.