all words: Andy Johnson
all photos: from their past shows in DC
About halfway through their sold-out set at the Black Cat, Gareth Campesinos, lead singer for the Welsh septet Los Campesinos!, asked the packed crowd if there were any couples in attendance. Many cheered in the affirmative. “Yes, we’re here,” they cooed, flaunting their love in front of the lonely, the miserable, and the cold on this dreary Saturday night. Once the noise settled, Gareth, equal parts Mark E. Smith and Scott Pilgrim, flashed a mischievous grin, wrapping his microphone cord partially around his wrist. “Well…” he said, contemplating how to harvest the energy of the 700+ people, “This is no place for couples.”
By all counts, Los Campesinos! should be another flash-in-the-pan Pitchfork buzz band. They’re young-(ish), attractive, spry, and write digestible pop songs. Considering how quickly the blogosphere churns through precocious acts, their survival is a testament to their talent and prolificacy, releasing four albums, two EPs, and a wonderful non-album single (featuring Heavenly and Black Flag (!) covers) in five years. While each member is instrumental (literally) to their sound, Gareth and guitarist Tom Campesinos (see a trend?) are the band’s creative forces. Gareth, the primary songwriter, said in interviews that his lyrics on their most recent album are “incredibly personal,” writing them in the midst of an acrimonious break-up.
I find it interesting that if you follow the arc of LC!’s album titles, you see the arc of a failed romance: lust, recklessness, tedium, and now melancholia. A common proverb is that a boy truly becomes a man after he goes through his first devastating break-up, and if Gareth’s motivation is genuine (To paraphrase another Welsh group, I have no doubt that his pain and sorrow is more sad and painful than mine), this makes sense because Hello Sadness, their fourth album, is full of misery, madness, and, yes, maturity.
LC!’s sprightly despondence brings to mind another twee group, Belle & Sebastian. But while B&S muddle their sadness and dissatisfaction with opaque lyrics of regret (“I gave myself to sin / And I’ve been there and back again”), hidden glances (“Our aspirations are wrapped up in books / our inclinations are hidden in looks”), and your stereotypical British stiff-upper-lipism (“You take a lover for a dirty weekend, that’s ok”), how LC! choose to confront their emotional tripwires differs from their Scottish antecedent.
On the same day they released Hello Sadness, a Canadian child actor-turned-hip-hop-superstar released one of the year’s most anticipated albums, Take Care. Aubrey Drake Graham has taken a lot of shit for being the “muthafucka most likely to have a gateway to Narnia in his closet aka The Michael Buble of Rap” to quote blogger Big Ghost’s hilarious review, but that’s because Drake shouldn’t be judged in the same context as contemporary rappers nor last generation’s luminaries. Drake has never claimed to sell crack (like Jay-Z or Biggie) nor does he pretend he’s a larger-than-life mogul (see: Rick Ross).
Drake is aware that he has a buttload of talent, but he lacks the Alpha male swagger of his forefathers. He recognizes his vulnerabilities, and spins his self-doubt, substance abuse, and romantic disappointment into hit singles. In many ways Drake owes a debt to Kanye’s mental collapse and subsequent rebirth for opening the door to moody, weird rap, because even as Kanye claims that he is the “illest motherfucker alive,” we both know that Yeezy and Drizzy couldn’t beat up a pillow case. I love Take Care, but you’ll never see Nas wear a kilt or drop a verse like, “When all the baggage just ain’t as heavy / And the parties over, just don’t forget me.”
Drake’s insecurities are most prevalent on “Marvin’s Room,” where an inebriated Drake drunk-dials an ex-girlfriend, cognizant this act is weak and devastating, but he still must ask, “I’m just sayin’, you could do better / Tell me have you heard that lately?” slyly acknowledging that he knows she only picked up because “I know he’s not around.” Drunk-dialing has been possible since phones and booze were in existence, but the advancement of technology has made embarrassment easier. Like most twentysomethings, Drake has taken to social media networks to share his naked reflections, retweeting praise and doling out cosigns to his Best-New-Music buddies (collaborator The Weeknd, tourmates A$AP Rocky, Lamar Kendrick). One recent tweet reads, “Who can I trust in 2012? No one not even myself.” Even Twitter cannot escape his intoxication: “Haaa everytime I do more than one tweet people keep telling me I must be drunk…I won’t lie Gin and Tonics have me feeling righteous.”
Who hasn’t felt “righteous” and sent an inappropriate message after a few too many gin drinks? The motive is obvious – bumpin’ uglies – but there also exists a want to connect to something comfortable in this indifferent universe. Even those who don’t dole out drunk texts still appreciate it when a friend “Likes” your post on Facebook, an acknowledgement that your thoughts—and by proxy, you—are important.
I’ve read many op-eds and thought pieces that social networks are making our generation insatiably narcissistic. In his commencement speech to Kenyon College, author Jonathan Franzen said, “Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.”
There is much truth to his argument. We are becoming too reliant on technology as entertainment. It provides us a medium to not only record our daily thoughts, but also publish them to a readership of family and friends. Facebook recently introduced its ridiculous “Timeline” feature, spurring us to further archive our lives. Twitter lets us blast off our daily thoughts to no one in particular. Sometimes we get a kind retweet, perhaps starting a conversation, and other times this can lead to trouble, as a former tourmate of Los Campesinos! recently found out.
If I could gently break away from the totality of Franzen’s conclusions, I don’t believe that we have become a nation of narcissists. I concur that we want to look our best in our profile pictures. But this isn’t necessarily narcissism; it’s an insecure human trying to not look like a fool. Most of the content that is published on a daily basis is nothing more than musings that interest nobody but close friends. There are millions of pointless transmissions from us peasants every day, complaining about the weather, complaining about politics, complaining about boys and girls and celebrity gossip and football and traffic, always, always, complaining. Indeed, I often wonder if my feeds are nothing more than a place for people to just bitch about their first world problems.
I will say that Franzen’s op-ed made me realize that a true paradigm shift is underway: what should be private and what should be public has changed. And this is what makes artists like Drake and Los Campesinos! successful and how they differ from Jay-Z and Belle & Sebastian: they are willing to openly acknowledge the difficult, but common issues of loneliness, unrequited desire, and venereal frustration.
The group opened up their performance with “By Your Hand,” one of LC!’s strongest singles to date, with Gareth singing, “Hours with her hands in my trousers, she could not contain herself / Suggests we go back to her house / But here it comes, this is the crux / She vomits down my rental tux.” Sexual dissatisfaction is a reoccurring theme in LC!’s music, as heard in the band’s next song, fan favorite “Romance is Boring,” which features Gareth’s yawp, “You’re pouting in your sleep, I’m waking still yawning / We’re proving to each other that romance is boring.”
Even in the age when an album leaks weeks in advance, this crowd was not intimately familiar with the new material. Even though “Life Is A Long Time” is one the band’s premiere ballads, featuring lyrics like “You know it starts pretty rough and ends up even worse / And what goes on in between, I try to keep it out of my thoughts,” there was too much iPhone gazing (singles) and canoodling (couples), and not enough singing and dancing. However, the hyperactivity returned for “Straight in At 101,” which features the line, “I think we need more post-coital and less post-rock / Feels like the build-up takes forever but you never get me off,” a sentiment felt far-too-often by the modern man.
The group continued, peeling through “These Are Listed Buildings,” the deep cut (if you can consider a three-year-old-song “deep”) “Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1,” and new track “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope,” which surprised me with how it went over, considering several new songs were falling flat. The crowd perked up when Gareth introduced “You! Me! Dancing!” as a “song about beer,” a nod to its use in Budweiser advertisements. More so than any other song in the band’s catalogue, “You! Me! Dancing!” proves that the band is more than a vehicle for Gareth’s lyrics—“We’re undeveloped, we’re ignorant, we’re stupid, but we’re happy”—but a dynamic blur of seven men and women cultivating chaos into a symphony.
The band wrapped up their 90-minute set with Hello Sadness’ title track and “Baby I Got The Death Rattle,” followed with a brief encore of several of their past hits, including fan favorite “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks.” This was particularly enjoyable as every member of a band got to a chance to holler in the microphone while Gareth jumped around the crowd, trying to find someone to dance with. Fortunately for him, most of the couples were sequestered in the back, so there were many eligible boys and girls ready to lose themselves, chanting, “One blink for ‘Yes’ / Two blinks for ‘No’ / Sweet dreams, sweet cheeks / We leave alone.”
Speaking of leaving alone, Ellen Campesinos, the band’s bassist, recently wrote a piece for an online web magazine describing her sexual frustration while on tour, admitting that she has (platonically) met many wonderful people during her travels, but getting laid is “not as simple as clicking your fingers and summoning some amorous fan to your backstage tiger-printed love dungeon.” Ellen’s article is self-deprecating in a way that only a charming post-romantic Brit could write, and it is especially heartbreaking to read, “Maybe I could grow a pair and actually talk to that bar-hugging guy myself. But he might think I was making a weird face while I played.” Considering the band’s thoughts are filtered through Gareth’s mind and larynx, its reassuring to hear his colleague contend that it’s not romance that’s boring, but the pursuit of intimacy that’s exhausting.
The commentariat are split about the article. Some commiserated with her angst, noting their own involuntarily celibacy. Others chastised her for being too selective in her promiscuity. Still, the article provides a fresh perspective that touring musicians aren’t emotionless rock-star cylons who churn out their music, party, and move on to the next paycheck. Ellen proves context that after these men and women aurally satisfy their thousands of fans, they return to being quite-real humans who need to be loved, just like everyone else does.