To say that 2010 has been a rough year for Los Campesinos! would be an understatement. Their first year with new female singer Kim accompanying her brother Gareth was marred by an early leak of their third full-length, Romance Is Boring, then a volcanic eruption that forced them to cancel a number of dates to support that album. Finally, they had to ask founding member Ollie, their drummer, to leave the band for undisclosed reasons. But, it should only be expected when a band nearly hits double digits in members that there will be lineup changes from time to time, and Los Campesinos! seems to be using this philosophy on their four-song acoustic EP, All’s Well That Ends, in which four numbers from their previous record are re-imagined as stripped down, somewhat morose, but often intriguing affairs.
There should be some sort of commendation on the part of Los Campesinos! for turning their lemons into lemonade, though some of the lemons may not have been totally ripe. The problem with an acoustic album for this band is that so much of their charm is built on the frantically played layers, led by a frontman who is more of a vocalist than a singer. Take away the overall loudness of the songs, and well, Gareth Campesinos doesn’t totally have what it takes to carry a slow song on itself. This is only a problem on “Romance Is Boring (Princess Version)”, the opener that sets the bar low for what is to come on the record. The song seems sloppy at the core, like something that was recorded while drunk in a dressing room. Even the female backing, which can usually anchor Gareth’s vocals no matter where they go, fail to save the song from being an ultimate throwaway, and nowhere near the quality that the album’s rocking version hits.
Luckily, the rest of the record improves greatly, with “(All’s Well That Ends) In Media Res” and “Letters From Me To Charlotte (RSVP)” actually improving upon their original versions with unique and quite beautiful versions. “Charlotte” features Kim Campesinos taking the lead for the first time on record, singing it down an octave with a prevalent vibrato that comes off as, well, weird. But after a few listens, not only are the vocals strangely appealing, they transform the song beyond a re-creation into a new piece all together. When Gareth’s vocals kick in, the harmonization of all the vocal elements weave and blend with each other perfectly.
On this number and especially on “In Media Res”, the real star emerges in Harriet Campesinos and her wonderful violin work. The second verse of “Charlotte” is brought to life by the strings rising and “In Media Res” is highlighted throughout by the stringwork. It’s interesting to note this because in the full, plugged-in versions of these songs, her work can often be overlooked and relegated to the background. But with no distortion and Gareth forced to take a more relaxed role, the listener can really appreciate just what a c0ntribution she makes and what an asset she is to the band as a whole (she is also an adept backup singer and quite the looker!)
Her strings even provide the lead to “Straight In At 101/It’s Never Enough”, which is a fine version of the song but really adds nothing to the original version. And, maybe it is because I watched the mini-doc made by Ellen Campesinos, but the bass vocals provided throughout the song became distracting for me and ruined the song in some ways. Also annoying is the second verse’s punchline, “and what exactly do you mean now by what can you even eat?”, which gets a pause in backing music and a finger-picked violin, ultimately seeming forced and unnecessary. People paying attention to the lyrics should get that there is a joke going on and people who are not paying attention to the lyrics, well, forcing them with an awkward break isn’t going to win them over. It’s an alienating moment in the song and one I wish they would not continue to emphasize in the live incarnation.
And though there is minor percussion throughout, it has to be noted that there is a distinct lack of drums, perhaps as an ode to their fallen member, Ollie. Or, perhaps it was more of a practical choice in that they were between drummers at the time of recording. Either way, I think it is an important statement for the band to both commemorate their time with their friend and cohort, but to also move on without him and prove there are many creative leaps to still be had, whether successful or not. Charles Bukowski’s epitaph famously reads “Don’t Try”, something that Los Campesinos! never seem like they are doing. They don’t try, they just do. Thus, their missteps are easy to forgive, because their shining moments, which this mini-album is a solid 50%, more than make-up for it. They make everything worth it.