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Indie 500: Los Campesinos!, Re-Up Gang, the Promise Ring, and the National

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Indie 500: Los Campesinos!, Re-Up Gang, the Promise Ring, and the National

As soon as I can, I’m going to stop using “indie” as a modifier ever again: partly because it’s so broad you might as well say what you mean, no matter how painful it sounds (Critic rock? Music blogs like?), partly because it just seems automatically self-congratulatory. In the meantime, though, we’ll have to reckon with Los Campesinos!, whose full-length debut Hold On Now, Youngster is more interesting to think about than listen to. And by “think about,” I mean “bitch.” LC! are a seven-piece Welsh band who, along with Vampire Weekend, actually survived early and frequent hype to reach a broader audience, meaning that at this point, as far as the class of 2007 goes, they’ve way outpaced, say, Black Kids. They’ve got the stamina and talent to blossom into an awesome band, but right now they’re just making me wonder if all the folks who hate twee indie pop have a point.

On last year’s Sticking Fingers Into Sockets EP, the band cleaned up in 16 minutes: “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives” was a lie of a title, with lead singer Gareth taking on all the bands they don’t like.“The music was okay, but the fresh air was better,” he snarks in tuneful harmony, “And I couldn’t tell if the singer’s keyboard was a crutch or a synthesizer/But it sounded like he’d broken a limb.” Die electronics and effects peddles, die! But the first track on Youngster has the band throwing the knives back at themselves, at least in the title: “Death To Los Campesinos!” Self-parodying pre-emptive response to an inevitable backlash?

A lot of this isn’t the band’s fault: the virtually unreadable Pitchfork review uses nothing less than 16% of its word count for references (my girlfriend did the number crunching). But the review was, at least, an understandable response to a band that foregrounds its insular musical ideology straight in the lyrics: in “Knee Deep At ATP,” for example, where the singer figures out his girlfriend’s been cheating when he sees photos of her holding hands with a guy in a “K records T-shirt.” And it’s really not helping that Gareth goes around baiting people with statements like “I know it’s a stupidly long title, but it acts as a good test to see which people are morons, depending on whether they reference it as being ’Fall Out Boy-esque’ or ’Ballboy or Ten Grand-esque’.”

But all this I can handle: many good bands are unbelievable snots. The problem, really and truly, is that the debut just isn’t very good. Brevity is the soul of punk if variety isn’t an option, and Los Campesinos! have to win some kind of prize for writing what are frequently long, twisty and densely arranged songs that still register as punk (they all go by the last name of Campesinos!, presumably in Ramones homage): loud, shouty, rhythm and lyrics over perfunctory melody. And god bless ’em, I suppose, but it’s really hard to make a punk album last over 50 minutes if you’re not going to throw in something to break up the loud shouting, and they don’t. Which leads me to wonder why exactly they’re so enamored of twee references, or lambasting bands they’re not fond of that have little to do with either the bands they like or what they sound like. To get to the point in a roundabout way: their EP features a cover of Pavement’s “Frontwards.“It’s a great cover, one that takes a super melancholy song and transforms it into jubilant pop-punk; it avoids the cardinal erroneous assumption of mediocre punk, that anything is automatically better if you play it faster and louder. But this is, ironically, exactly what happens on the album proper: it’s 50 minutes of hyperventilating. Even the two songs grabbed from the EP sound sludgy in their new context.

Which means there’s some kind of conflict here between the kind of band Los Campesinos! think they are or want to be (and chastise other bands for not being, and circumscribe their frame of reference within), and what they actually are: a much simpler band trying to make things very hard on themselves, shouting out convoluted lyrics. But because they’re “indie”—because they drool over Pavement and Sarah Records and other bands that make sounding different not just an inadvertent side effect of how they play but a defiant point of honor—I think people are responding favorably to the idea of a band which has finally sealed itself off from all outside influences. And while my elitist self kind of thinks this is cute, we’ve got problems when your punch-lines are more fun to read out-of-context than to hear sung. Maybe LC! are just a promising band with great EPs who (cf. Voxtrot) got suckered into a lousy full-length debut. But maybe they’re something more pernicious.

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In other elitist news, let’s take a deep breath and welcome hip-hop back to this column. Will this finally be Clipse’s year? And yes, I know: Clipse are one of the few mainstream rap groups that get regular hipster play (Wu-Tang affiliates are the others), therefore I’m not doing anything particularly daring here. And the group seems to be acutely aware that their fanbase is basically the state of Virginia plus the indie rock nation: in an interview with Rhapsody, Malice concludes—apropos of the current Soulja Boy-leaning state of mainstream rap—“The dummies gravitate toward that, and the hipsters and everybody that’s just cool gravitate toward us.” After a decade of being screwed over (their debut was flat-out never released after Elektra failed to adequately promote lead single “The Funeral”—impressively, this in the same year that the company also infamously under-represented Spoon), Clipse have a $1.8 million deal with Rick Rubin, new producers, and so on.

When Clipse finally get the major-label push they’ve needed all this time, who will they be rapping for? Frequent column commenter Brandon Soderberg posted a few weeks ago in speculation about What “Street Niggas” Really Listen To…. He was arguing, in part, that Clipse’s lack of widespread mainstream popularity had to do with their unwillingness to sell unthinking braggadocio and self-aggrandizing thuggery to their alleged target audience: “Maybe some drug dealers have decent music taste, but the assumption that because one is from the street, one is apt to embrace street music, is incorrect,” Soderberg writes. “50 Cent’s image of thuggery is way more appealing than say, ’Chinese New Year’. In last night’s episode of ’The Wire’, there’s a scene of Snoop and Chris driving down the street with Hurricane Chris playing out their speakers; that’s what I’m getting at!”

Maybe—although this also ignores Clipse’s penchant for the most minimalistic and audience-confronting of Neptunes beats. They’re not just lyrical elitists, but musical ones: the delay in putting out Vol. 3 of the We Got It 4 Cheap mixtpe series, Pusha explained, had to do with their crappy contemporaries. “I can’t personally rhyme over ’This is Why I’m Hot,’ ’A Bay Bay’ or ’Soulja Boy,’ ” he explained, “so we’ve been waiting for different albums to come out.” Which of course is the same kind of elitism the dreaded poptimists are supposed to decry in music with instruments, yet embrace in hip-hop (unless you’re Kelefa Sanneh, in which case you review Hurricane Chris with all the enthusiasm possible; this makes Sanneh the last honest man in music criticism).

Anyway, the mix is kind of a downer: as noted plenty of other places, the fact that Clipse should be happy at this point in their career doesn’t mean they are, and they seem kind of directionless. Aside from a few specific record label jabs (has any other rap group spent more anger on their label than their alleged enemies?), it’s mostly punchline-filler-punchline: stylish, but lacking the lean ferocity and venom of their best work: without anger, they’re surprisingly colorless. Oh yeah, also this is technically not Clipse but Re-Up Gang, but while Sandman is alright, this is still the kind of thing where you sit and wait eagerly for the Thornton brothers to return. Their joyless take on Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)” replaces Jay’s celebration with the announcement that they can’t thank everyone who got them there yet because “you motherfuckers know I still live this shit…no reminisce, no recall,” but then keep the chorus, having undercut its impact: there’s a dense tangle of winter/ski/snow puns (Mount Rushmore!), but nothing special. If melancholy was really supposed to take over as their new mood, bad job on Kanye’s “Good Morning,” which simply lists old-school rappers (Big Daddy Kane, Big Pun, Notorious B.I.G.) before concluding “I’m bored by my so-called peers.” Hopefully Clipse/Re-Up aren’t so embittered by missing their moment for so long that they’re going to become cranky old-school standard-bearers. Standout track—for me at least—is “Dey Know Yayo,” a take on a sludgy, minimalistic Shawty Lo track that gives the mix the menace it’s sorely missing: the Re-Up Gang claim to be nothing less than the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Not yet—at least not this time—but I have faith.

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More classification trouble, albeit of a pleasant variety: there’s plenty of canonical albums I haven’t heard, so what did I do? I got into The Promise Ring’s 1997 stalwart Nothing Feels Good, an emo classic that came out on Jade Tree, a record label which is apparently an automatic punchline in certain circles. Don’t ask me: The Promise Ring sounds nothing like emo, because it sounds neither like Bright Eyes or Fall Out Boy. Sure, if I sit down and read the lyrics, they’re a bit whiny (“Under that threat of sky we lie together, why care about the weather. It only ends in dark.”)—but I can’t really hear the lyrics when I’m listening, because Davey van Dohlen tends to repeat the same 15 or 20 words over and over again, a kind of circular incantation that reduces the vocals to just another element. (Also, sometimes the lyrics are funny: “I’m not as good as the interstates are,” goes “Make Me A Chevy.” Dude, who is? Better to not reprint the self-pitying punchline.) I don’t have a whole lot to say about it; it’s just that listening to a bunch of new stuff all at once for the A.V. Club (OK, so I lied about the linkage: The Born Ruffians aren’t too clever, though I suspect this is a case of production which is under-powered in the hopes of being different but just doesn’t work; Jim White’s latest, on the other hand, is quite good, though the sample song they’ve posted isn’t) has given me this weird craving for ’90s college rock, which is what The Promise Ring sounds like to me. File next to Superchunk rather than Saddle Creek. I don’t know what this fetish is about—my increasing appreciation for Pavement? A preference for the decade of the slacker pseudo-intellectual to the decade of the trust-fund scene kid?—but hey, whatever saves bands from being tossed aside on genre grounds.

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Finally, live music…and for the first time in nearly 4 years, NYU saved me on something. The rise of The National in the last year has been puzzling, to say the least: songs that take multiple spins to get into, morose subject matter, dour white guys. When they sold out five nights in a row at Bowery Ballroom, it became obvious that these guys were way too prominent for my concert-going good. NYU to the rescue, booking the National in the small Skirball Center in their large Kimmel Center and making advance tickets available to students only. Some notes:

1. Seeing these guys is like seeing fucking Al Green, I’m not kidding. I counted no less than 11 people on stage—5 for the band proper, plus cello, trumpet, trombone, woodwinds, lord knows what else. Because Skirball is a small space, the horns tend to carry the songs even more dramatically than they do on record—they boom out with no amplification, whereas the frequently sketchy mix left the violins to fend for themselves.

2. Which just draws attention to what a meticulous job the studio albums do of presenting their sound with very little production messing around. There’s some exceptions—e.g. the opening drums on “Secret Meeting”—but I was thinking there was no way they could replicate all that live. Turns out they can; they’re just not going to be able to respond to any requests or deviate from their list at all. The show is an elaborate choreography of people coming on and off for their songs. Do you want knee-jerk spontaneity, or can you have well-rehearsed perfection? It doesn’t have to be a binary, I’m just saying.

3. Matt Berninger is perfectly relaxed between songs, but it seems to take him an enormous force of will to complete the vocals. His characteristic pose is to park his left hand under his right armpit, a half-fetal pose for a nervous man.

4. “Mr. November” is these guys’ Foo Fighters song—the titanic anthem everyone waits to scream along to at the encore. It’s their most immediate song, and it’s good that they at least wrote one of those, just to show they can.

5. This was a very good show, but it was missing an X factor. And I think it was beer. Thanks for nothing NYU.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.