Los Campesinos! has reliably kept their core intact while growing exponentially.
“They are always different; they are always the same.” This was how John Peel described the Fall, and while it’s perhaps a little grandiose to compare them to Cardiff, Wales’ Los Campesinos!, it’s also not entirely a stretch. Whereas other bands grow by shifting their aesthetics, Los Campesinos! has reliably kept their core intact while growing exponentially—they haven’t changed their parts as much as they’ve replaced them all with higher-end versions of the same pieces. 2017’s Sick Scenes, one of the band’s best, is still the work of a bunch of eternally-witty people with immense skill in writing great indie pop, which is what has made every one of the band’s albums so memorable—something that started a decade ago with their debut, Hold On Now, Youngster…
The 10th anniversary edition of Youngster gives fans, both new and old, a lot of bang for their buck. Though it was originally produced by Broken Social Scene producer David Newfeld, this batch of songs was remastered by longtime producer John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, the Long Winters, Death Cab for Cutie). Goodmanson has produced every subsequent release by the band, and his familiarity with the ins and outs of their sound shows. His work here elevates details originally buried in the mix, namely the violin work of Harriet Campesinos! (this is the kind of band that have chosen to share a fake surname, for the sake of clarity, we’ll stay on a first-name basis from here on out). Truly, that experience means that he’s one of the only people qualified to tastefully update Youngster, and the remastering is delicate: each song has lost a little bit of the original fuzziness while never diminishing any of the energy.
That’s a good thing, since the energy poured into Youngster is part of the immediate charm of the album. It doesn’t waste time easing you in, launching us straight into “Death to Los Campesinos!,” a number so dazzlingly catchy, it feels like a warning. Frontman Gareth shows off his own wit within a minute, sing-shouting lines like “Splitting necks and calling it dichotomy” and “I’ll swap the bruising for a bumping sensation/ I’ll be Ctrl-Alt-Deleting your face with no reservations,” his frantic voice providing a crackling contrast to singer Aleks’ cooler, higher register. The songs’ breakneck speed wanes little in the album’s first half, careening from “Death to” into “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats,” a song that announces itself with a gang-vocal screamed “ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR! ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!” and a jangly guitar before Gareth’s voice comes howling back in. Even at their slowest during the album’s first half—namely, the Aleks-lead “Drop It Doe Eyes”—the frenetic energy feels like it’s less that they’ve slowed down, and more that they’re waiting to burst again.
It’s when we reach “Knee Deep at ATP” that we’re able to see the band for who they really are. After a minute of guitar noise, the song comes creeping to a near halt, propelled by violin and a restrained drum beat. Gareth comes in, but for the first time he keeps his voice down. He’s great at singing about heartbreak in ways both mundane and absurd, and “ATP” is no exception: “Maybe the lining of a winter’s coat mightn’t be the best place to hide a summer secret,” he sings about his lover’s infidelitous paper trail from an ATP weekender. From here, the peaks and valleys are more noticeable, with songs like “We Are All Accelerated Readers” and the laughably-titled “This Is How You Spell ‘Hahaha, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics’” providing more quiet bits, with the latter going as far as giving us a LiveJournal-referencing spoken segment. “You! Me! Dancing!,” perhaps the most well-known song in the band’s arsenal, delivers a build that would make Explosions in the Sky blush, before careening into a dancefloor-ready pop hit about not being able to dance, a club anthem for the awkward.
Youngster features a lot of shouted lyrics, something that might become too abrasive if not for the sheer pop infectiousness that they’re paired with. Every song is ridiculously quotable, from nearly every single line of “My Year in Lists” (“You said, ‘Send me stationary to make me horny’/ So I always write you letters in multi-colors/ Decorating envelopes for foreplay/ Damn extended metaphors, I get carried away”) to his thoughts on which Breakfast Club character he’d be, complete with a bubble-bursting by Aleks: “I’d be the one that dies/ No one dies/ Well then, what’s the point?” Later, in the same song, he takes the self-awareness a step further: “I’m not Bonnie Tyler, and I’m not Toni Braxton/ And this song is not gonna save your relationship/ And this sentimental movie marathon has taught us one thing/ It’s the opposite of true love is as follows: Reality!”
Wisely packaged with the collection is the band’s earliest material, collected from non-album singles and EPs—”The International Tweexcore Underground” and Sticking Fingers into Sockets—and the b-sides for Youngster’s singles. This collection is refreshingly well-sequenced, and it’s practically another album’s worth of material. The band have distanced themselves from some of the most fun material here, with Gareth naysaying tracks like “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives” and “The International Tweexcore Underground,” but these songs give us early glimpses of the witty, self-aware songwriting that would come later—the latter song namechecking Sarah Records and Calvin Johnson solely to dismiss their existences bemoaning punker-than-thou ethics delivered with one of the best early examples of motormouth delivery. Appearing here as well is unreleased track “How I Taught Myself to Scream,” a song that feels like a bridge between the Los Campesinos! presented on Youngster and the one that would come just a few months later on We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed.
Collected here are a gaggle of covers, ranging from indispensable (Pavement’s “Frontwards,” as well as their straightforward takes on “C is the Heavenly Option” by Heavenly and Black Flag’s “Police Story”) to mainly cool-in-concept ones (“Yr Boyfriend” by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Deerhoof’s “The Eyebright Bugler” and “In Accordance to Natural Law” by Bikini Kill). Even at their worst, these songs help map out the band’s universe, showcasing where they got their best pieces, be it the romantically-entangled “C Is the Heavenly Option” (which imagines a multiple-choice quiz for romantic follies) and “Yr Boyfriend,” to the unhinged and pummeling “Police Story,” with Gareth doing his best Henry Rollins.
What’s fantastic about hearing these songs again is knowing that, despite how fully-formed the band felt even on their debut, they’d return just eight months later with an even stronger sophomore effort, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, showing that whatever fire was burning in their guts in 2008 couldn’t be quashed by just one album. Now, six albums into their career, they’ve slowed down considerably—even if that just means not releasing more than one album a year—though they’ve managed to still have the spark that made Youngster so compelling, even a decade later.