Friday, November 16, 2007

KQED Music: Los Campesinos! cause a twee bit of trouble

Being a music fan used to be much simpler when I was younger. Back then, I saw the world in delicately nuanced shades of Black or White. But with age comes a sort of wisdom, which in turn just seems to make life much more complicated. Take, for example, Cardiff-based indie kids Los Campesinos! who are due to land in San Francisco for the first time on November 28, 2007. Seven members strong, they burst onstage with a youthful, infectious energy that is hard not to love. But they also carry with them the unmistakeable whiff of twee, which troubles me.

Over the years, I have developed a strange, contradictory relationship with this fey branch of indie rock. Occasionally, it produces glorious moments of shimmering pop that cause me to fall in love with music all over again. Which is all the more surprising when I find the vast majority of the twee tribes to be an irritating, self-absorbed, weirdly conservative bunch of cardigan abusers.

But, instead of pretending that this side of Los Campesinos! doesn't really exist, or that I don't have a problem with twee after all, I have decided to face my fears like a grown-up should. Are they really twee and, if so, is this such a bad thing?

Twee sign one: Boy-girl harmonies
Any twee band worth their salt should feature mixed-gender singing. Ideally neither voice should be particularly strong or tuneful: the boy errs towards weak and yelpy, while the girl turns up the bubblegum sweetness while simultaneously channeling the spirit of Moe Tucker. Los Campesinos! lead vocalist Gareth and back-up singer Aleks fit this classic template perfectly, but both also have enough moxie in their voices to avoid the limp, lisping, tuneless excesses of twee pop past. In fact, Aleks' voice is really rather nice.

Twee sign two: Being indie
Of course, releasing your first record on small-format vinyl via an indie label doesn't in itself make you twee, but it definitely helps. LC have done it twice: first in the UK with their debut seven-inch single "We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives" on Wichita Recordings, then in North American by re-releasing their first two UK singles as a six-song EP called "Sticking Fingers into Sockets" on Canadian indie label Arts&Crafts, available, naturally enough, on 10-inch vinyl. But quirky releases are fun, and one thing twee bands can't be faulted for is keeping the punk tradition of DIY mail-order-only singles with hand-printed sleeves alive and well.

Twee sign three: Twee roots
One of the surest indicators of a band being twee is if they formed out of a shared love for some other twee band. For example, perhaps the most twee moment in history occurred when the founding members of Talulah Gosh met because they were both wearing Pastels badges. Ditto for Los Campesinos! Their lead guitarist Tom met the three original members of the band (Neil/guitar, Ollie/drums, and Ellen/bass) when he overheard them chatting about American indie pop act The Decemberists in a Cardiff bar. Which is the kind of cute story that is forever destined to overshadow their shared love for more credible acts, such as Pavement and Sonic Youth.

Twee sign four: Odd instrumentation
Los Campesinos! are loaded with musical extras, including a violin, a glockenspiel, and melodica (which looks a bit like a cross between one of those mini Casio keyboards from the eighties and a bong). But there is nothing wrong with expanding your musical horizons beyond the standard guitar/bass/drum template; it's what you do with them that counts. For Los Campesinos!, that means creating a big sound more redolent of Arcade Fire than the likes of BMX Bandits.

Twee sign five: Childishness
Music critic and author Simon Reynolds famously described the twee movement as a "revolt into childhood," and Los Campesinos! certainly fit the bill on that front thanks to their cartoonish aesthetic and songs filled with kiddie references (most of them too peculiarly British to bother trying to explain here). However, a certain youthfulness is forgiveable in a band who are all still only 22, and thankfully they are already showing signs of maturing. Like wearing cheerleader's outfits or hanging around school playgrounds, the childish side of twee becomes increasingly dubious with age.

Twee sign six: Self-referentialism
Their latest single is called "The International Tweexcore Underground." It doesn't get much more twee than that. But dig a little deeper and you realise the song doesn't just name-check twee icons such as Sarah Records, Amelia Fletcher, and Calvin Johnson, it disses them too. And then it does the same thing to Henry Rollins, which is far too tough to be twee. So are they twee or not? Ah, screw it. I've no idea. But they're dead good, so who cares?

Los Campesinos! play the Great American Music Hall on November 28, 2007. Their EP "Sticking Fingers into Sockets" (Arts&Crafts) is out now, and their most recent single "International Tweexcore Underground" (Wichita) is available via import from RecordStore in the UK. Their debut album is due for release in March 2008.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.