For better or worse, indie rock dominates music media: From public radio to mass-market magazines like Spin, Blender, and Rolling Stone to an ever-increasing Internet culture typified by pitchfork.com, the music our media tells us is important is largely made by hip young white people wielding guitars.
It was disappointing then to see 2008's most interesting and most prolific indie-rock band get such minor attention in recent year-in-review music coverage: Gender-balanced Welsh septet Los Campesinos! — a band that expands its guitar-bass-drum foundation with a sprightly overlay of keyboard, violin, and glockenspiel — released two good albums in 2008, the phenomenal debut Hold On Now, Youngster followed by the more earthbound We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed.
Los Campesinos! shouldn't be hard to comprehend. In look and sound, they can't help but evoke genre heavyweights Arcade Fire. And across a two-year body of work that includes two full-length albums and a gaggle of singles and EPs, these underdogs prove to be just as smart and far funnier. That their music doesn't seem to be taken as seriously as their Canadian doppelgangers must be because they don't take themselves as seriously — because their music has more punk and more puns, more funk and more fun.
At the band's best (which includes the entirety of Hold On Now, Youngster), co-leaders Gareth (snotty, anguished) and Aleksandra (sweet yet sardonic) trade off verses like conjoined twins completing each other's thoughts while their bandmates bop around behind them in a tumult of handclaps and vocal interjections, dancing to the breakbeats of broken hearts.
This young band obsesses over their messy lives (telling title: "My Year in Lists") and is always ready with a biting rejoinder ("I cherish with fondness the day before I met you"). But they're the kind of sarcastic, introspective wallflowers delighted to discover themselves having fun ("You! Me! Dancing!"). The music is springy, chaotic, breathless. It has to be to keep up with their overactive minds and racing hearts.
The song titles themselves — the best since the Minutemen — capture the band's smarts and humor: "This Is How You Spell 'HaHaHa, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics,'" "... And We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes in Unison," "You'll Need Those Fingers for Crossing." Rather than whimsical flourishes disconnected from the songs themselves, the titles are even better for functioning like the more mundane titles of most other bands — as chorus and refrains that sum up the message of each song.
As collegiate in their own way as Vampire Weekend, Los Campesinos! was born at Cardiff University, in Wales, and in their 2007 singles and EPs you can hear the birth of the band as a union of good-natured, eager music fans messing around with their faves: "It Started With a Mixx" a bit of self-mythology for a band "trying to find the perfect match between pretentious and pop"; the Lesley Gore-referencing "We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives" dissecting an emotionally tumultuous dorm party (I'm guessing); the charming call-and-response "C Is the Heavenly Option" classic songcraft worthy of Brill Building or Motown; the Pavement cover "Frontwards" and the combative, self-referential anthem "International Tweecore Underground" cheekily situating themselves within the indie culture that is their direct inheritance.
This early batch of music also includes two songs that would be centerpieces of Hold On Now, Youngster: "Do the Math" and "You! Me! Dancing!," the former a breathless stream of memorable one-liners ("I'm stitching up each one of your pockets so when we are together you'll maybe look a little less bored"), the other a slow-building hymn about complicated fun.
Hold On Now, Youngster opens with the ear-grabbingly resonant lyric "Broken down like a war economy," but that ends up being just another whipsmart throwaway. It's not an album about big subjects, but an album that burrows so deeply into its own little world that the band's mundane agonies, arguments, private jokes, self-doubts, joys, crushes, and pop-culture musings seem enormous.
The follow-up, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, was recorded in Seattle during an American tour last spring, and it suffers from being less rooted in the band's home life. Though still wittier, more musical, and more engaging than the majority of its indie competitors, it lacks the zip of the band's earlier work. The spirited interaction seems to have been subsumed by co-frontperson Gareth's album-long dour mood. (New opening line: "I think it's fair to say that I chose hopelessness.") Essentially, it sounds like an album made by a (terrific) touring rock band rather than an album made by a bunch of friends finding a fun way to avoid their studies. And, in this particular case, that exchange is a loss.
Or maybe it's a break-up record (themes of distance and romantic despair dominate) or just a quickie — Something to rebound from. Or maybe not all bands thrive as career acts. Los Campesinos! could just be about a moment captured, but that moment isn't over yet.
With Titus Andronicus
Sunday, January 25th
Doors open at 9 p.m., tickets are $10