Moving away to a foreign country to write a record isn’t a new formula by any account, especially not for Welsh indie rockers Los Campesinos!. It’s a tactic the band takes up from time to time. Their 2011 album Hello Sadness was primarily composed in Figueres, Spain and and their sophomore album 2010’s Romance Is Boring was partially recorded in United States as well as back home in Wales. For their newest release, Sick Scenes, band members relocated to Amarante, Portugal.
The town of Amarante comes up often in the lyrics of Sick Scene, which was released earlier this month, most directly in the song, “I Broke Up in Amarante.” Local sites, like the Campo do Carvalhal, an abandoned football (the European kind) stadium, come up as lead singer Gareth David lyrically intertwines soccer with mental health. In a characteristic bout of wordplay, he confuses breaking-up and breaking down, getting brutally honest about his mindset at the time. The directness with which Gareth recounts the scene of drunkenly passing out at an old soccer pitch makes it almost romantic in it’s listless loneliness. And that is the strength of Los Campesinos! and of Sick Scenes.
It has been ten years since the EP Sticking Fingers into Sockets gave us our first taste of Los Campesinos! and the band has spent that decade repeatedly charming us with idealistically indie tunes. Sometimes more pop, sometimes more synth, more recently more rock, through all their sonic shifting Los Campesinos! have always managed to warm our hearts and move our feet. Their work hasn’t always been met with the same widespread commercial success (although that uber American Budweiser commercial is hard to top), but Los Campesinos! has done well enough to keep the band going. Through endless line-up changes (three of the original members remain, four have left, and four have joined for a current total of seven band members) and general growing pains, the band has withstood, preserving not only the core their sound, but also their humble appeal.
Sick Scenes finds this Welsh band with the Spanish name under the particular strains of aging not only as a band, but also as people. It’s a relatable topic, but an odd meditation from a group that has grown up in the public eye, having been just kids writing track with cheeky names for the MySpace Generation when their debut suddenly drew everyone’s attention. Ever since fans have listened as Gareth and Co. go from certifiable, card-carrying scenesters to bonafide adults, working through issues bigger than mixtapes and high school reading requirements.
It’s their cleverness that eases the transition and keeps our attention. Hidden behind a barrage of soccer lingo, album opener “Renato Dall’Ara (2008)” is a much more introspective tune than what it appears to be. The first line “turned up pissed up, a pariah, uninvited to his all-dayer” speaks directly to the band’s fears of being met with the same approval with this record as they had been previously. In a recent interview, Gareth noted how the song was “kind of an appropriate introduction to the album” in that it keyed into that feeling of being uninvited to your own party. Under the upbeat chorus and toe-tapping bassline, the song ruminates on the ins and outs of the industry now that they’ve been within it and the pros of having “14 hands upon the paddle” when you’re trying to move your band along.
In “A Slow, Slow Death”, Gareth gets political while still staying tropical, the latter perhaps allowing the other’s existence in that it tempers what might otherwise come across as preachy. He juxtaposes lounging “you on a lilo on an island in the pacific” verses “[him] face down in a puddle on the high street” moments after calling the United Kingdom a “land of a Queen who feasts while we wear a small, hopeless nation.” Although Los Campesinos! have never shied from their opinions, at one point selling “Never Kiss A Tory” shirts and donating profits to The Trussell Trust, Refugee Council and Child Poverty Action Group. Few other frontmen are able to marry these discussion together in the same song and so successfully.
Of course, Sick Scenes isn’t perfect and does at times seem a little overcooked and perhaps lacking in complete cohesion. For example, “Sad Suppers” is less memorable track and “The Fall of Home” gains and loses all its momentum before the song is even over. They lack the punch that comes full force in tunes like “5 Flucloxacillin,” which has the group vocals, occasionally spoken-lyrics, perfect alliterative rhymes, claps, and filled-out instrumentals that we’d come to expect from the band. Despite the fact that the song is basically Gareth reading off his medicine cabinet, there’s something universal in his panic and hopelessness that make it a recipe for success.