Even for a class of acts that didn’t seem bound for greatness in the first place (nothing personal, Say Hi to Your Mom), few might have predicted that Los Campesinos! would have any great deal of staying power when they debuted in the post-Clap Your Heads blog-band bust of 2005.
Most of the bands from that era seemed to be chasing the “hey you can get big on the internet without MTV!” idea that launched Bloc Party and others to something resembling stardom; the result was a slew of guitar groups that were too amiable too hate and too unambitious to remember.
The issues of Los Campesinos! were different. They were undeniably catchy and energetic and already memorably weird, but they were also way too cute, way too twee, (for goodness sake, the singer played a glockenspiel) and way, way too clever by half. But here we are six years and four albums later (can’t knock that work ethic), and the Welsh group has grown into something approximating indie-pop standard bearers.
Music micro-trends come and go faster than ever now, but Los Campesinos! has stayed the course, and in the process become lethally good at creating melodic songs that balance singer Gareth Campesinos! increasing preoccupation with existential despair with crafty arrangements that can sooth, bludgeon and surprise at any given moment.
The group’s transformation was especially pronounced Thursday night at the Music Hall of Willamsburg. The former Cardiff University students’ relentless tour and release schedule (logorrheic Gareth has a lot to say about broken hearts and the things in the world he finds terrible, and he’s going to say it as often as possible) has caused enough burnout that a few members went back to school.
Though it’s still a shame that they haven’t replaced former violinist Harriet Campesinos!, they now look and play a lot different than the overly-excitable kids they were a few years ago. Their new neck-tattooed drummer, Jason Campesinos!, looks like he could be playing in a metal band; even founding bassist, Ellen Campesinos!, has ink and an imposing onstage stance, in general everyone looks a lot less jumpy.
That extends to their music. Last year’s Romance Is Boring and this week’s Hello Sadness don’t hurt for fast-tempos, but the band has gained enough confidence to tone down their breakneck, “get to the next catchy part quick” pace of yore to let their formidable hooks breathe and build in strength over the course of a few minutes.
This was best seen last night in the Hello title track, which allowed multiple lyrical and melodic lines to alternately cycle along before cohering at the end for a stunning climax that seemed to be doing its best to purge Gareth of every moment of self-loathing in him.
It’s not all artistic maturity, though. Gareth and his sister, Kim, who took over keyboard and backing vocal duties a few years ago, make for an adorable pair (synchronized “shooting each other” gestures, synchronized “strangling themselves” gestures) and there was much hoisting of band members onto each other's backs by the end.
Los Campesinos! have grown as songwriters, but they still love to play fast, hooky songs that get music fans shaking their fists and chanting along. That they often succeed in this goad in a genre (and Thursday night, a neighborhood) that often calls for cool disaffection is an artistic achievement as valid as any.