Los Campesinos! get wistful on Sick Scenes

Sick ScenesWitty and pun-filled lyrics about heartbreak and despair? Check. Eclectic indie pop? Check. Football references? Check. Well, it seems that Sick Scenes is definitely a Los Campesinos! album though there are times when it doesn’t really feel like it is.

Beginning with their 2008 debut and ending with 2013’s No Blues, Los Campesinos! had a run of five great studio albums in almost as many years. Still their best record, No Blues should have brought Los Campesinos! to a higher level in every sense, but personal circumstances prevented the band from intensive touring and promoting. Four years later, Sick Scenes marks a substantial departure, not only from the band’s usual release strategy but also from their signature sound.

If their early records were mainly about being young and lost in love, it seems one of those things has changed. “Not right to call this old age," sings Gareth in album closer “Hung Empty,” but it certainly ain’t youth no more.” Not as up-tempo as their early work, the angular guitar riffs and glockenspiel parts are often replaced by acoustic guitars and mournful string arrangements (“The Fall of Home," “5 Flucloxacilin"). The guitars are still there but, as in “Got Stendhal’s” or “Sad Suppers”, they remain subdued instead of taking the spotlight.

Compared to its predecessor, Sick Scenes might seem a bit draggy at first listen. It lacks immediacy, which tends to be this band’s biggest asset. But give them enough time and these songs will worm their way into your brain. Some of the melodies may not be as catchy as those in “You! Me! Dancing” or “Avocado, Baby,” but they are so beautifully arranged that they possess an unequivocal, enduring power. It also helps that Gareth is at the height of his powers as a lyricist - which is quite a stunning admission, considering that this is the man who once wrote a love song that climaxed with his lover vomiting on his rental tux.

The album’s first two singles are instant classics, though. “I Broke Up In Amarante” is the ideological successor of “What Death Leaves Behind,” a high-tempo energy boost with a hell of a chorus, aided by Kim’s gorgeous backing vocals. By contrast, “5 Flucloxacilin” is much more representative of the album as a whole. A tragic anthem bordering on the epic, it includes some of Gareth’s best lines ever: “Another blister pack pops, but I still feel much the same, 31 and depression is a young man’s game” he wails, with a surprisingly crystalline voice. With its string arrangements and its euphoric chorus, it feels a bit like an early 2010s indie pop hit done right.

If there’s one thing Sick Scenes is missing, it’s one more song that can be as immediately catchy as the first two singles. The No Blues-sounding “A Slow, Slow Death” and the clever “For Whom The Belly Tolls” just miss the mark, though the latter’s unexpected breakdown is definitely one of the record’s highlights. Will Sick Scenes be a career-changing record? Probably not, but then again, they’re not cut out to be that kind of band. If anything, Sick Scenes solidifies their status as one of the most underrated bands of the past decade. Not what you may call a commercially successful band and not exactly critical darlings either, Los Campesinos! seem destined to remain as the last great UK cult band of our era.

Release: 24th February 2017, Wichita Recordings

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