Los Campesinos! hold a special place in my heart. Upon my discovery of them in the early months of 2014, I became completely enamored with their 2010 masterpiece, Romance is Boring. You wanna talk about grandiose, incredibly dense, bursting-at-the-seams indie rock- this record has it all. I’m aware that the band’s pair of 2008 releases are their most beloved, but Romance is larger in scope, both musically (the arrangements are wild and colorful) and lyrically (lyricist/singer Gareth gets really down deep into his college sex life). Despite my love of Romance, I never bothered to listen to the group’s next two records, based on exactly two things; a) four members left the band post Romance, including vocalist Aleksandra (whose sweet voice and female perspective so perfectly juxtaposed Gareth’s manic ramblings), and b) I heard like two songs from 2013’s No Blues and immediately thought they had lost their luster.
Following the longest break in the group’s career (3.5 years, when they had previously been an album-a-year group), and the band’s devolving from constantly touring 20-somethings to fully-employed 30-somethings, I approached Sick Scenes with appropriate caution, ever-aware of the fear that one of my favorite bands (and a huge influence on my own music) would be tainted as I inspected their new releasein minute detail. The first single they dropped, however, “I Broke Up in Amarante“, inspired hope – Gareth was older and more jaded than before, yes, but the energy and personal lyrical imagery were there (including classic LC! soccer (ahem, football) references – “Dreamt I’m anchoring that midfield / Like the anchor in my midriff”), and the song was catchy to boot. A bit pop-punk and emo (complete with half-tempo breakdown and a chorus that repeats “It seems unfair!”), but a banger none-the-less.
Opener “Renato Dail’Ara” contends with “Amarante” as the best song on record, and once again delivers amped-up energy, soccer references, a great sing-a-long chorus, and a depressed, cathartic message. Singing “Living off 2008”, Gareth reflects with bitter nostalgia on the early days of his band, when he played FIFA and drank beer all day and the group had time, youth, energy and critical opinion on their side. The full-band harmonies are there and chief songwriter Tom’s love of noodling guitar scales bristles at every juncture. Second sequenced “Sad Suppers” is another highlight, though not quite as immediate as “Renato”, and is followed in turn by “Amarante” to kick the album off with a strong trifecta and a sign of a possible return to form.
But the album’s weaknesses begin to rear their head from here on out. “A Slow, Slow Death” is your classic ‘slower, more atmospheric, moodier’ LC! song, and has a catchy enough chorus, but here Gareth’s singing falls over the fine-line between impassioned and whiny, and despite a nice horn arrangement on the chorus, the track’s melody is a bit annoying. “The Fall of Home” is one of the gentlest LC! songs on record, and despite a truly beautiful string, glockenspiel and piano arrangement, the sparser parts of the song showcase how bad Gareth’s singing can be when he’s really trying to be sweet and not scathing. The lyrics, however, detailing coming home after spending years away, are on-point and nearly make up for the singing (“Battery dies on your monthly call / Budget cut at your primary school”).
“5 Flucloxacilin” is an ode to Gareth’s ongoing battle with depression and the myriad pills he takes to deal with it, but he lacks the sharp-tongued wit and sassy delivery from early LC! records, making a line like “31 and depression is a young man’s game” come off as more pitiful than pained. The second half of the album, while never bad, feels underwritten, lacking the gut-punch and urgency that the first three tracks bristle with. “Here’s To The Fourth Time!” has a great outro that completely changes pace and features distorted screaming referencing the band’s old tracks, and the penultimate “A Litany/Heart Swells”, with its couplet verses split by an increasingly intense chorus of “I’m shouting out a litany / An echo calls back!” nearly gets there. But the closer leaves a lot to be desired and much of the rest is underwhelming and forgettable.
One of my biggest gripes with the record, unfortunately, is the production. Despite being helmed by LC! vet John Goodmanson and arranged by founding member Tom, there is nothing approaching the density of colorful guitar, synth, keyboard and bass riffs that Romance found around every corner. Missing former vocalist Aleksandra puts Gareth constantly at center-stage, and the group harmonies on the choruses feel phoned in and uninspired, often too low in the mix. Gareth’s vocals frequently feature a slight fuzz that is too subtle to be cool (ala The Strokes) but just noticeable enough to be distracting. And the snare drum, which strikes with a hollow, banging tone that I don’t care for, is way too high in the mix and hits almost every insufferable quarter note on the record.
Thematically, Sick Scenes is about Gareth’s problems with being 31. He’s too young to be wise but too old to be energetic and optimistic. He’s nostalgic for his youth, fighting the same mental illnes he had then but from within an older, fatter body. While James Murphy handled these problems with heartbreaking acceptance of emotional decay, Gareth idolizes his glory days (calling out his former Cardiff haunts – “Hirwain, Minny, Twkesbury, or Brook Street / What I’d not give just to have another week”) but still resorts to juvenile alcoholism to deal with his current troubles (“Nursed a two beer buzz four whole weeks / Cause it’s the only way to feel sane”). As was always the case, the more intimate and detailed he writes, the better, but too frequently, especially on the back half, we’re treated to vague sentiments like “When all is spent and all is lost / When all is said and done”. Gareth is still one of the best lyricists in the indie rock game, but where once he couldn’t pen a verse that wasn’t as embarrassing as it was genius, he now only strikes gold when it seems like he has a song’s theme and personality focused and locked down.
While Sick Scenes is a pretty enjoyable listen, packed with good melodies and good lyrics, alongside a couple of standout tracks, it doesn’t excite much past its first three or four tracks. It does show that LC! had the potential to put out something great, but too many of these songs make poor production choices and are underwritten both lyrically and musically, playing it too safe and lacking the huge swinging dynamics and interesting detours the band made a name for themselves on. It certainly sounds like an older and wiser record, but this was a band that was built on youthful energy, and they’ve neither recaptured it or nor pivoted to some interesting new identity. I’ve given the album about twenty listens at this point, and I’ll likely be listing “Amarante” and “Renato” among my favorite songs of the year, but I can’t say I’m impressed with the effort. Still, it manages to succeed to some degree on the back of how well the Los Campesinos! formula works and how talented Tom and Gareth are at their respective crafts.