Review: Los Campesinos! – ‘Sick Scenes’

Posted: by The Editor

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What I adore about Los Campesinos! is their ambidexterity, their tireless suitability for any mood or time. Their discography straddles the nexus of dweeby house party dance-offs, messy break-ups, existential despair, political disquiet, the quirkily surreal encounters that proliferate the minutiae of everdayness; ultimately—to arrogate the clichéd lexicon of indie rock writing—the airy chasm of the happy/sad. They’re a power station, distributing nuggets of relevancy, effervescence and warmth on an industrial scale. I can put on a Los Camp song at my lowest or highest and feel connected.

It’d be a disservice to paint them as a timeless band, as they’re also uncannily timely. Compounding Gareth’s wrestling with his mental health is a miasma of confusion and insecurity. Gareth admits in an interview with The 405 that this stems partially from a quarter-life crisis. It’s been ten years since Los Camp formed, and the pungent exuberance which typified them has spurted a jaded polyp; since—as Gareth stresses on the record and off—he feels that he and his bandmates are just as uncertain as they were back in the formative years at Cardiff University, if not more so. The most volatile political and cultural upheaval in a generation hasn’t exactly proved effectual alleviation. The collision of tempestuous interiority and external anxieties most poignantly manifests itself in the double-tap “A Slow, Slow Death” and “The Fall of Home”; which are direct emotional responses to Brexit, with its political ramifications and its private revolutions. Feeling estranged from your own home now it’s cast in a morosely dimmer, stranger light, and the difficulty in continuing to function sufficiently after such global ideological pandemonium; these are problematic issues to digest. The closing couplet of ‘The Fall of Home” encapsulates the anger and bewilderment imbuing leftie-liberal-snowflakism, but also that sense of loss and dislocation; “Another family friend fell sick/Gave the Fascists a thousand ticks.” With teaspoons of irony flavouring a gluttony of apprehension, they articulate the worries of millions of us here and across the pond with wit and thoughtfulness rarely heard in pop music. Even more significantly, Gareth demonstrates fair-mindedness; Brexit and Trump voters aren’t generalized as ignorant xenophobes but the disaffected certainty of an apathetic and decaying political order, subsequently exploited by a malignant shitnest of kleptocrats and reptilian ideologues.

Gareth David identified in The 405 interview that Sick Scenes is their most “doomed” release, but it’s also feasibly their most aesthetically beautiful. There’s a cohesion and spotlessness to their songwriting that gently sparkles even when in sixth gear, as if kissed by the Amarante sun under which it was produced. The convoluted unity of guitar hooks on ‘Sad Suppers’ tonally synergises with the plaintive strings of ‘The Fall of Home’ and the playful keyboards of ‘Here’s To The Fourth Time’; itself a welcome change of pace into good ol’ fashioned heartache paralleled with ‘Got Stehndahl’s’ quirky love platitudes and spiralling breakdown. ‘For Whom The Belly Tolls’ – one of my favourites from the record – and ‘Hung Empty’ are the most evocative of No Blues’s brief eye-fucking with dream pop synths and restrained melodies. Winningly, the distinctive oooing and ahhing chorus returns at their most lamenting, never more serene. Across the forty minutes there’s a balance and accuracy to their time signatures and progressions that hits exactly where you want, when you want.

Even when they digress into histrionically emo – “and me, me, me/I am face down/In a puddle/On the high street” from ‘A Slow, Slow Death’ is verbal combover – there’s steady compositional counterweight; in the case of ‘A Slow’, a prevailing flurry of brass rebalances the tide. There’s a thin line between iridescent agitation and enrapturing fervour, and Sick Scenes doesn’t so much cautiously tread it as debauchedly prance.

As a British 20-something, their convivial obsessions with death, economic angst, and football (soccer) is excruciatingly apposite. As popular as they are the US, there’s a vibrant, sardonic Britishness to them that’s absent from the UK indie rock scene, and redolent of our transatlantic bros’ process of utilising precise logistical details to cultivate a tone or message. If you’re millennial, cynical, and living hand-to-mouth across these wretched isles, Los Camp are the Tesco Value lager-swigging synecdoche of our people.

Sloped digs at the extortionate rents of East London (where I lived for a shitstain of a year) and the ubiquity of gentrification consort with Gareth’s personal ennui, mental health struggles, and self-medications with cheap beer and watching Euro 2016; with the latter he ripens a running gag about its numbing dullness as a spectacle.

Football (soccer), gleefully, matters a lot. I’m in flux whether my favourite football (soccer) reference is using the midfield-anchor – a position designed to break up passages of play and maintain defensive shape – as simile for his perennial wariness, or the sizzling diss couplet “you describe yourself as a one-man team/You’re a one club man denied a testimonial.” The opening track ‘Renato Dall Ara’ alludes to the Bologna stadium in which England’s David Platt scored a late winner against Belgium in the 1990 World Cup and later hosted the lowly San Marino scoring against England within nine seconds; I mean, Jesus Christ that’s wonderfully niche, but actually performs as metaphor for the rollercoaster routine of band life. Football wordplay becomes a vehicle – almost the language of compromise – for finding Gareth’s voice, where inertia naturally transects comedy. Being beautiful and doomed, funny and sombre, outgoing and introverted; these are the intricate dynamics that reinforce the Los Camp mantra.

Fraughtly nihilistic, yet only a twitched smirk away from the carefree euphoria they’ve refined, Sick Scenes defers to the malleability of emotion; on ‘5 Flucloxacillin’, Gareth jibes “31 and depression is a young man’s game.” Just because you’re in crisis doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humour about it.


You can download the album or purchase it on vinyl here:

— Kieran Devlin