Summer Camp - Welcome To Condale
released 31 August 2011 on Apricot Recording
The phrase, “summer camp,” means different things to different people. To some, it brings back hazy memories of halcyon days; vacations that seemed to last forever, meeting new people, independence, fun and laughter. To others – namely me – it’s synonymous with damp, concrete floors, terrible buskers playing 'Wonderwall' into the early hours and sharing a tent with Welsh brothers who have a peculiar affinity for discussing bizarre and possibly illegal sexual practices in stomach-churning detail. Anyway, maybe Welcome to Condale can shake us out of our collective reveries and take us back to another place altogether: 1981.
Like a great deal of bands coming to prominence this year, Summer Camp seek to firmly channel the spirit of two decades ago. They marry sweet melodies and vocals with lo-fi, scuzzy arrangements before drowning the whole package in a sea of swirling reverb. Producer Steve Mackie (yes, him from Pulp) often does the whole album something of a disservice, because it takes a few listens before the better songs can break free of the stranglehold and reveal their subtleties to the listener.
The double-barrelled opening salvo of 'Better Off Without You' and 'Brian Krakow' are a promising start, with the latter possibly a riposte to the former. The defiant 'Better Off Without You' recalls the sassy post-punk of Blondie or even The B-52s, before 'Brian Krakow' adds a male lead vocal to the mix and carries the surf-pop vibe in another direction. At this point, you could be fooled into thinking there’s a thread linking the songs together as parts of a cohesive whole, but aside from snatches of film dialogue cropping up throughout, there’s little to suggest a grand theme.
The track 'Summer Camp' is probably the most symptomatic of the reverence to the past, with no element left untouched by heavy-handed production, but it overcomes this to be one of the better tracks with a fantastic chorus that manages to be simultaneously triumphant and nostalgic (“Searching for someone just like you, now I’ve found you”).
However, all the tracks tend to pale into insignificance when compared to the mastery of the title track. It’s a pitch-perfect look at small-town syndrome and looking to escape your place of birth which will be immediately familiar to anyone who felt trapped by parochialism in their teenage years (“It’s a great place to raise kids but they never will grow up”). Despite this frustration, the track reaches the same conclusion we all get to eventually: you can check out any time you like but you can never leave (here voiced as “coming home, but you never went away”).
Sadly, Summer Camp too often feel like a decent pop band attempting to ride a bandwagon with their swampy, a la mode arrangements. At its worst, on the forgettable 'Nobody Knows You', the balance of the drums feels completely wrong and the entire song is lost in the mix. Ultimately, it’s the occasional moments of clarity that make Welcome To Condale feel more thrilling than it really is and while the album is liable to grow on you over time, there are limits to the affection you can feel for such a record. It contains poignant, bittersweet tales of heartbreak and loss but is mature enough to recognise that these are mere trifles in the grand scheme of things. In the end, that’s Welcome To Condale in a nutshell – arresting in the moment, but lacking in long-term fulfilment.