Los Campesinos! really like exclamation marks. Not only do they have one in their name, but all seven band members have one at the end of their adopted monikers—plus they have a song title featuring no fewer than three of them (“You! Me! Dancing!”). Bearing this in mind, it’s not surprising that every moment of the Welsh band’s debut album, “Hold on Now, Youngster,” feels like it’s punctuated with extra emphasis.
The band has been building to this album through a series of impressive EPs and singles. Fans of these early releases may initially be disappointed by the LP’s exclusion of excellent tracks like “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives” and “The International Tweexcore Underground.” The band also unwisely chose to rerecord “You! Me! Dancing!,” their signature song, which loses much of its heart in the process. But “Hold on Now, Youngster…” shows just how far Los Campesinos! have developed in only a few months.
The band’s basic formula has not changed. Clever lyrics and male-female vocal interplay borrowed from the likes of Belle and Sebastian and the New Pornographers form the backbone of most songs. Rarely is this better shown than on the old song “Don’t Tell Me to Do the Math(s).” The song’s oblique lyrics are shouted out at maximum intensity: “You know that we could sell you magazines / If only you could give your life to literature / Just don’t read ‘Jane Eyre.’”
Producer David Newfeld (Broken Social Scene) places the vocals at the front of the mix throughout the album. This puts the focus very much on the contrast between the flat whine of Gareth Campesinos! and the much sweeter voice of Aleksandra Campesinos!. Opener “Death to Los Campesinos!” (I warned you about the exclamation marks) is particularly effective as the pair alternate lines, including the delicious opening couplet, “Broken down like the war economy / Father Führer don’t be mad at me.”
For all the band’s cleverness, what’s truly remarkable about “Hold on Now, Youngster...” is its strikingly emotional center. “Knee Deep at ATP,” about a failed relationship at a music festival, allows the album a rare moment of respite from the frenetic pace of most songs. It builds to a climax which inverts the wisdom of “High Fidelity,” as the band vows, “It’s not what you like but what you’re like as a person.” The song rescues the album from any potential accusations of snobbishness as its naked emotion carries the listener along brilliantly.
Just as good is “My Year in Lists.” The song, which clocks in at just under two minutes, is again a tale of heartbreak, combined with mockery of New Year’s resolutions and pen-pals. The chorus, “So put on every winter coat that you’ve owned since ’98 / And every midnight sees the countdown to another awful day / I cherish with fondness the day before I met you,” reveals a band free of pretension making an honest record about being young, all without slipping into corporate emo.
As a whole the album suffers from a lack of cohesion. Songs like “...And We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes in Unison” and “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats” are perfectly viable on their own, but their shifting dynamics and tempos don’t help the album flow. In addition, the songwriting could use some polishing. The band seems to have only two ways to end songs: either get much faster or get much slower. The results are a little simplistic but nevertheless charming.
Los Campesinos! may at times be too sugary-sweet for some people’s tastes, but they’re never less than sincere and are regularly laugh-out-loud funny. No longer the elitist band that mocked Fugazi and Black Flag on “The International Tweexcore Underground,” they are prepared to write songs about concrete events and their own experiences. If they keep it going, there may soon be a lot more people adding exclamation marks to their surnames.