Summer Camp / Los Campesinos!
Welcome to Condale / Hello Sadness
(Moshi Moshi / Arts & Crafts; 2011)
By Brian Riewer | 5 December 2011
UK duo Summer Camp’s debut album Welcome to Condale is slathered in nostalgia for times far past, the health and reception of the album dependent more upon its listeners’ retrospective longing for the decades that were rather than a proper assessment of the music that is. It’s meant to be a relic of sorts, but the cover inevitably reminds me of a far more recent event, one that is completely personal in scope: my first and only keg stand. And though I would usually write off such erratically firing synapses, considering the aesthetic differences between a newly released album and a memory of a night of binge-drinking, I can’t help but draw a lot of the same conclusions about this album that I did this particular ritual. Like the beer undoubtedly involved, Welcome to Condale is a purposely cheap product which doesn’t seem to have much of a niche outside of broke twentysomethings, needlessly ditching means far more practical and pleasurable for the over-the-top (in this case, literally). Somewhere, someone is puking, having the time of their short life.
Welcome to Condale is a study in tactless excess, the sheer volume of inebriating nostalgic moments intended to overwhelm the lukewarm medium by which they’re delivered. It’s not a surprise, after Summer Camp’s Young EP (2010) featured tracks named after not one but two main characters from ‘80s high school films (“Veronica Sawyer” and “Jake Ryan”), that they doubled down with new tunes “Brian Krakow” (from My So-Called Life) and “The Last American Virgin” (early ’80s high school film); why this is a recurring practice is not as easy to explain. It’s fluff, because like on Washed Out’s Within and Without (2011), Summer Camp don’t really aspire to be anything other than a reminder of old things we used to like. But unlike Within and Without, Welcome to Condale does too much, reveals too much, sagging too far. It offers the distinct impression of wanting to talk and having nothing to say, or offering very little when there is something to be said; again: like force-feeding the audience the tap when a cup to sip on would’ve been enough.
Welcome to Condale bears more than a fleeting resemblance to Ford & Lopatin’s recent Channel Pressure, both nonstop deluges of John Hughes movie theme songs dependent on a narrative arc entirely made-up for the album (Channel Pressure has the pair calling out to a teenager through said teen’s computer; Condale is an imaginary place, as are the people they interview and the facts they have on their website). Both revel in the genres and time periods their aesthetics so obviously emulate, but where F&L’s tinkering leads to gargantuan, intentionally humorous bloats like “Too Much MIDI (Please Forgive Me),” Summer Camp simply revel. And that’s it.
It’s actually not hard to imagine Welcome to Condale as a follow-up to F&L’s (under their previous moniker, Games) EP That We Play (2010), were Summer Camp to pick their spots better, but when the beats drop on “I Want You” and “We’re Done Forever,” the rest of the songs are swallowed by self-parody. “Brian Krakow” sounds like a bad B-side from KISS, the arena-ready guitars pounding pud, the hiccuping chorus “I’ll stick arou-ou-ou-ound” communicating the same notion as “I want to rock and roll all night / and party everyday,” but with a keg-stand on the cover to hammer youthful licentiousness into the brain of the already hammered listener. And this is from an album I consider pretty front-loaded; a big swath of empty instrumentation fills the album’s middle stretch: the faded guitars on “Down,” the saccharine pucker of the title track, the Beach-House-robbing organ work on “Last American Virgin.” I like “Nobody Knows You” as what it should be, as vacuously large pop music proportioned perfectly. Only, this is what they want their whole album to sound like, which works for exactly two tracks, and the other, “Ghost Train,” is a holdover from their Young EP.
While Condale apparently has the fountain of youth at the center of its main thoroughfare, it’s become very obvious to me that I’m not getting any younger, not the least of which is the way I’ve received the new Los Campesinos! album. Coincidentally released the day after my birthday, Hello Sadness, the Cardiff band’s fourth, is as bad and isn’t really any better than what a Los Campesinos! record has ever been. Which means it still is either very sincere or very sarcastic, or both, though these are two qualities which have always been both a justification for liking them and just as easily a reason why not, meanwhile not offering any amnesty or middle ground. And it’s not that hard to see why; song titles like “A Heat Rash in the Shape of the Show Me State; or, Letters from Me to Charlotte” and “This Is How You Spell ‘HAHAHA, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics’” don’t quite lend themselves to moderation. The group draws from both extremes with everything they do. Which extreme is entirely up to you.
While I don’t want to drown out any opposing positivist opinions simply because I’ve grown old and crotchety—as well as because I don’t exactly want to embrace such age and crotchety-ness when I’m still in my early 20s—there’s a lot of points on this record where stopping an eye roll would take superhuman restraint. Take “Every Defeat Is A Divorce (Three Lions)”: one can hardly be blamed for falling in love with lines like “With a childhood of fingernails that ripped my throat to shreds / A walk that chimes like church bells from all these loose joints in my legs,” the simple metaphors of which draw an easy but graphic image in one’s mind. But one can just as easily be forgiven for wanting to skip the rest of the track after Gareth Campesinos! sputters out the half-baked, “You can lead a horse to water but it won’t drown itself.” On “By Your Hand” the instrumentation drops out to allow Neil Campesinos! to build it back up with the line “My gracious companion / With your eyes of doe and thighs of stallion,” whose meaning I have still yet to fully comprehend.
“Baby I Got the Death Rattle” presents the best (worst?) manifestation of this band’s duality: featuring both breathlessly earworming sonics and dunderheaded lyrics—“In the frost I drew a dick for every girl that wouldn’t fuck me / Woke early the next morning to see the frost had bitten me”; “You are an angel, that’s why you pray / And I am an ass, that’s why I bray”—in totality the track bears an unearned melodrama. Some of which is forgiven for the sincerely pessimistic “Life Is a Long Time,” for example, but too often a song’s solid build-up is let down by peaks either overdone in their emotional zest or underdeveloped as to their meaning or allusion.
It is slightly depressing, though, because at one point I had considered Hold On Now, Youngster… and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (2008) as marginal top 20 shit in a relatively weak 2008. But looking back? They’ve returned to the clean sound they had pre-Romance Is Boring (2010), leaving the ill-advised Jamie Stewart experiment far in the rear view where it belongs, which at the very least is a step in the right direction. But as far as I can see, the emotional scope of Los Campesinos! in general, and of Hello Sadness specifically, is just not something I identify with post-keg-stands, nor do I see myself returning to such explosive sensationalism any time soon. Same goes for Summer Camp. Which: I guess this is growing up. Though I’m sure both Summer Camp and the Campesinos are having a lot more fun than I am right now.