Last year, London-based duo Summer Camp released an excellent six-song EP entitled Young. Led by standout track “Round the Moon,” Young lived up to its name with its 80s-radio synths and pat lyrics about the trials and tribulations of adolescent love and lust. Most importantly, it sounded as carefree and fun-loving as, well, two months at summer camp. Without trying too hard, Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey brandished their impressive knack for especially memorable hooks and summarized the ephemeral sugar-rush thrills and bedroom despondency so many of us deal with as teenagers.
Judging by the cover of their debut LP, Welcome to Condale, I expected more of the same: a bikini-clad girl is lifted sideways and suckles from the intoxicating teat of a keg stand at some quintessential beach party. That’s exactly what we get; unfortunately, it turns out that simplistic retro pop gets tiresome over the course of a full-length album.
The chorus of “I Want You,” for example, is a cloying repetition of the song’s title. Later, we get more youthful profundity: “There is no you, there is no me, together for eternity.” Dueling keyboards languish in the background with all the predictability of an indie pop NOW! compilation. It is perfectly fine, but in an age when we’re saturated with this kind of music, perfectly fine barely suffices.
“This house isn’t big enough for the both of us,” Sankey and Warmsley sing in unison on the following track, “Losing My Mind,” as electronically filtered drums clatter in… agreement? Tension? That’s another problem here; too few instrumental decisions on Condale feel connected to the lyrical themes the duo espouse — as Sankey wails that she’s “losing her mind,” an inexplicably affable whistling refrain reminds us that Peter Bjorn and John did something similar to greater effect on “Young Folks.” What was that, 2006? I don’t think this is the “backwards-looking” sound Summer Camp were going for.
“My father always loved me, I never made him proud,” Sankey intriguingly mentions on the questionably titled “Summer Camp.” Will this actually be an insightful thought? “And when I was with him, I felt lost in the crowd.” Nah, why pursue the tension of familial disappointment when they could just find a word that rhymes with “proud” and assume that the listener will be interested anyway?
When Sankey repeated the titular chorus on last year’s “Why Don’t You Stay,” it worked because it felt purposeful — the whole song is about how the protagonist wishes she’d said that to her summertime lover. “Now I can’t recall the colors of your eyes, and I wish I’d said goodbye,” she sang, subtly crafting a compelling little story of fleeting romance and the heartbreak that so often accompanies it. The dream-pop bossa-nova backing music (including Warmsley catchily speak-singing “Think back to, back to the summer”) reflected the wistfulness of the singer’s nostalgia; the musical choices on that track — and that EP as a whole — felt logical and important. On Welcome to Condale, however, the best we get is on “Done Forever”: “I know I could’ve tried so much more, but you’re never gonna say / My blood’s thick and cold and raw… we’re done forever.” And then they repeat “we’re done forever” a few more times, because over the past year the duo has apparently come to the conclusion that simply repeating lines regardless of context imbues them with significance. Instrumentally, the track fares little better as some Justice-aping synth squelches and vaguely tribal drumming never quite come together the way the listener hopes.
All that said, there are a couple of gems hiding away on the LP’s second half. “Down” offers an electronic twist on poppy shoegaze; of course, it’s immediately followed by the title track, which seems to regurgitate its guitar line and beat but is saved by a cute little narrative about the fictional town of Condale, where “families build houses on the graves of those they’ve loved.” Meanwhile, “Last American Virgin” at least attempts to break free of the uptempo synth pop sound that dominates the rest of the album. Sure, it once again features a whistled bridge, but at least this time it contrasts nicely with the crunchy beat and cavernous bassline. And “Ghost Train” is probably the most interesting thing here in terms of melodic and lyrical catchiness; I can’t help but note that it was originally released last year, presumably before the rest of Condale was recorded.
Closing track “1988,” however, encapsulates everything I dislike about this album; its chorus is literally just a repetition of the word “eighty-eight” while Sankey sings, “Hold onto me and I’ll hold onto you, cuz knowing you, it’s all I can do.” What such notions have to do with 1988 remains unclear, and while he song itself sounds nice on the surface — dig those glittery keyboards which recall the kind of 80s balladry you might hear blaring over the speakers at your local CVS — it’s not quite pretty enough to get by on its own fumes. Thus, its superficiality goes from being a potential asset to a liability, a seeming symptom of a creative well that’s gone dry.
I feel bad ragging on this album, mainly because it’s not that different from the still-enjoyable Young EP. But that’s the thing — without any sense of evolution, Summer Camp sounds stagnant at best and obnoxiously boring at worst. It’s not like I was expecting a Pet Sounds here, but the best songs here highlight what Welcome to Condale could have been (mainly, interesting). Instead, we have this perfectly pleasant and assuming piece of synth pop, neighing through a vocoder with the dying breath of the shamelessly beaten horse of retro-futurism. I’ve no doubt that Summer Camp is capable of producing a fun, idyllic full-length; this, however, isn’t it.