As a reviewer and avid reader of music literature, I’ve learned to incorporate many silly genre and subgenre names into everyday speaking. But one I’ve never felt comfortable using was this ‘twee’ thing. What the hell does that mean? It just sounds weird. So I did some research and it’s still pretty vague. From what I can gather, it’s pop that is amateurish and definitely DIY, like a cute baby giving the finger. I love Belle & Sebastian; I’ve seen them called twee. The Vaselines were pretty damn good. But I don’t own anything by Beat Happening or the Pastels.
But if Los Campesinos! are twee or at least twee-influenced, then hell, I guess I’m a twee pop fan. How can you not be pepped up by Los Campesinos!? With their cheerleader-style vocal shouts, toe-tapping tempos, melodies that beg to be sung along with and instruments including violin, synths and shitloads of glockenspiel, you can’t sit still with this stuff blaring. These days, with so much music available over the internet’s series of tubes, it’s almost a chore to be original. The Peasants (Los Campesinos!) make a conscious effort to steer clear of garage rock trends and rather mix their influences like K Records pop and Pavement’s guitar slop. They spit it back out with their septet’s many instruments, almost as many as Architecture in Helsinki (with whom they also share some vocal qualities), but come out sounding musically more like `06 tour mates Broken Social Scene because they still favor the six-string at the forefront. They even recorded Youngster with BSS producer and contributor David Newfeld.
In the rock world it is often hard to tell where a band is from by sound alone with inspirations borrowed across borders and the line between British and American rock can be especially blurry. Los Campesinos! could be nothing but a UK band (they are from Wales, which is part of the UK). Aleksandra Campesinos has a sweet, more universal tone, but when Gareth Campesinos does his sassy sing/shout thing, you would never mistake them for a U.S. act. While they may call themselves Welsh and not ‘British,’ I can’t think of a more British-sounding band around these days other than Art Brut.
They share more than a thick accent in common with Art Brut, though; they both have an affinity for pop and indie music culture references. The band is comprised of recent Cardiff University grads that are music nerds and they made it known immediately. On 2007’s Sticking Fingers Into Sockets EP, they revved up the obscure Pavement track “Frontwards” and had a song called “It Started with a Mixx.” On the 7” song “International Tweexcore Underground” they name-dropped the likes of Henry Rollins, Ian Mackaye, Sarah Records and Calvin Johnson, and then on the B side they cover Black Flag’s “Police Story” and Heavenly’s “C Is the Heavenly Option,” which originally featured a Calvin Johnson guest spot. Though toned down a bit, the references are still here on Youngster, like in “Knee-Deep at ATP,” as in the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, which is about meeting someone because you’re wearing a Bikini Kill T-shirt, but the deceptively titled “My Year in Lists” is not about every music nerd’s favorite activity but rather about a long-distance fling. The band battle Art Brut for the self-reflexive lyric crown with songs about being in a band like “Death to Los Campesinos!” and “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats.”
I was surprised to see “Don’t Tell Me to Do the Math(s)” and “You! Me! Dancing!” reused from their EP, because not only was the EP widely distributed, but those tracks both had their own 7”s and have also been around online for free for a while. Which brings me to another point: The Campesinos crew thrives in the EP and 7” format, where their peppy outlook doesn’t have time to outlive its welcome, and their formula doesn’t reveal itself so readily.
For example, when new track “Broken Hearts Sound Like Breakbeats” gels mid-breakdown lull with old tune “Don’t Tell Me to Do the Math(s),” one could be confused that the former was kicking back into gear and it’s not even a different track. The guitar parts in each song are strikingly similar in their angular upbeat-accented melodies. Both of Tom (or Neil) Campesinos’s riffs are good individually, but they should not have been placed next to each other. The Campesinos family also has a very limited range of comfortable tempos. Their breakneck speeds land in the high end of the 160-180 BPM range for the first five tracks (minus a few breakdowns to halftime) and partway into the sixth. It’s pretty tiring and that’s part of the reason the purposefully obnoxiously titled “This is How You Spell ‘HAHAHA, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux Romantics’” is such a relief. It became my favorite track with its driving mid-tempo beat and catchy chorus. It’s also nice when they try out 6/8 on “…And We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes in Unison.”
Perhaps Los Campesinos! are twee, perhaps not. In twee tradition they claim to not know what they’re doing, but on this album they sound like they’ve got it pretty well figured out. But their video for “Death to Los Campesinos!” finds the band meeting their end at the likes of unicorns, rainbows and adorable kittens. Whatever you want to call them, they are a hell of a good time. However, since they so quickly found their sound as a band, it is time to stretch those parameters a bit to keep things lively yet not tiring. Also, perhaps they could have left those two tracks for the EP and trimmed this down; 43 minutes is like a marathon for this group. Youngster is a promising start for these youngsters, and is a wonderful mess of a debut for a calculating group that is overly aware of the underground pop scene and its history.