Christmas songs are as big a part of the season as crowded shopping malls and spiked eggnog, but there are only so many times you can hear “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” without wanting to wretch just a little. Here are some suggestions for compiling a Yuletide playlist that perhaps isn’t quite so musty. Much of the music can be purchased or ordered locally at Guestroom Records, Size Records and the like.
While their fourth LP in as many years doesn’t peak quite as high as
their 2008 debut, “Hold On Now, Youngster ...” (which was hallmarked by
an absolute crusher of an indie-pop single in “You! Me! Dancing!”), Los
Campesinos! have crafted another terrific record in “Hello Sadness,” a
compelling, aggressive, twee listen.
Their neckbreak rock style that somehow straddles post-rock and post-punk — as best exemplified on the explosive “Youngster ...” opener “Death to Los Campesinos!” — no longer catches listeners unaware, but singer and songwriter Gareth Campesinos!’ vocal improvements and knack for darkly comical, hyperdetailed storytelling really focuses this disc’s stories about messy relationships and death. He laments over screwed-up love and English soccer’s recent woes on “Every Defeat a Divorce (Three Lions)” and, after describing a girl as “the prettiest in the world” on “By Your Hand,” a sexy tryst goes downhill when “she vomits down my rental tux.”
“By Your Hand” is the single, and it ranks up there with the Welsh seven-piece’s best, hookiest work. “By your hand is the only end I foresee!” the band melodically shouts in one of its signature moments of indie catharsis. “The Black Bird, the Dark Slope” is the straight-up, boy-girl, vocal-heavy rocker the group knows well, marked by Jason Campesinos!’ signature, all-kit drum-pounding.
The guys even range beyond their realm of comfort in “To Tundra,” a slow burner that textures the sweeping, simple guitar chords they usually play on more leisurely songs with a simple analog rhythm. The effect is a well-paced love song that takes place “behind the church” in “a hazy daydream,” capped by a rising, exquisite arrangement and a desperate, Gareth-led chorus: “Just take me with you as well.”
And in case you didn’t get your fill of overshared emotional drama in the album’s first eight songs, don’t worry. “Baby I Got the Death Rattle” and “Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. II” feature Gareth looking upon his own abattoir scene (“But they request that I leave because my sad eyes are too much to bear,” he sings, in one of the album’s funniest, most vivid images) and burning the skin off his hands before visiting a palm reader.
It’s morbid stuff, sure. But it’s cheeky, too. I mean, they all go by the same last name, Ramones-style, for pseudonym’s sake! Also worth pointing out is the band’s careful choral arrangements, which cast a multipart harmony atmosphere over the rushing rock on a bunch of the songs.
I recommend purchasing the physical format (whether on vinyl or CD), because the package includes lyrics and a making-of DVD shot by the band’s own Ellen Campesinos! It reveals an affable, hardworking and funny little group and a producer, John Goodmanson, who pushes for terrific performances from each member.
Further bonus points tally up for using Oklahoma-based Walrus Audio pedals that were built by Gentle Ghost’s own Brady Smith, who assured me that they “nailed it.” I agree. “Hello Sadness” is their most complete album on record.