In 2010, London duo Summer Camp issued the promising six-track Young EP. Lead single, “Round the Moon,” and its excellent found-footage music video, alligned well with the indie rock universe’s recent adoration for the the 1980s. A silly MySpace backstory/ publicity stunt, where the pair said the band was a group of Swedes that met at summer camp, obviously struck a chord with a fearful Web 2.0 world where most kids never experience the awkward thrills of an actual summer camp.
Their lyrics may have been a bit on the nose (John Hughes’ beak in particular), but the warm, analog synths and buoyany melodies garnered my attention. Indie producer/songwriter Jeremy Warmsley and singer/actress/former NME freelancer Elizabeth Sankey continue to strike an interesting contrast on their lovable debut album, Welcome to Condale.
The cover photograh says it all. A bikini-and-cutoffs girl is lifted sidelong and guzzles from a keg stand at a beach party. The sounds within may be a bit darker than the frivolity of that image, but Summer Camp still sound summer-y in chillwave’s notion of the critical term.
The pair’s retro tunes are bombastically produced by Pulp’s Steve Mackey. He throws in a stomping rap beat on “Last American Virgin” and a dark electro sheen on stalker anthem, “I Want You.” It’s ultimately an ephemeral concept record that centers every character-driven cut on a fictional California suburb called Condale. The boilerplate concept is displayed in manner-of-fact language and gut-level songcraft that simply works. The endlessly sunny Condale is an appropriate locale for these bursts of sunshine hooks and bittersweet lyrics.
Opening track, “Better Off Without You,” would have slotted into a Brat Pack movie soundtrack and I wouldn’t blink an eye. The chugging surf guitars, horn fanfare, and twinkly production is propped up by Sankey’s powerful vocal performance. The titular chorus is simply stated and Warmsley’s guitar breakdowns are pure ear candy. The stickiness of their pop is an easier to swallow because of the sadness in Sankey’s voice as she tells a friend: “he doesn’t want you, why won’t you listen to me?”
Summer Camp’s teenage angst is shot through the heart on the Weird Science rocker, “Brian Krakow.” The track centers on a local Condale rock star who’s the epitome of a nihilist, except for when it comes to love. Best Coast and Cults delivered similar tunes on their debut albums. The squiggly electronics on “Brian Krakow” add a level of unpredictability that was somewhat lacking in those aforementioned indie bands.
Summer Camp may be an out-and-out pop group, but they can be downright sinister, too. If you want a dark, ’80s jam look no further than “I Want You.” Sankey’s carnal delivery is key to the track’s efficacy: “and if I could I’d squeeze your hand so tight every knuckle would crack/ I’d wrap my arms around you and snap every bone in your back.” Deep cuts, “Nobody Knows You” and “Done Forever” follows a similarly dark sonic with its guitar tones and electronics. Sankey gets downright creepy at times.
One thing that slightly brings down the album’s quality is Warmsley’s inconsistent vocals. In one moment, he’s slinging glam-rock sleaze (“Brian Krakow”) and during another he sounds as dopey as Paul McCartney (“Last American Virgin”). He’s best on playful tracks such as “Losing My Mind” and “Down.” Both feature the two leads singing over each other, and responding to each lobbed barb and trilling come-on. They work like oil and vinegar. Each vocalist remains a separate entity, but they pair well together.
The hazy synth-pop tune, “Summer Camp,” which samples Kelly LeBrock in John Hughes’ Weird Science, limps by on charm alone. The lyrics about finding true love aren’t quite as polished here. The high and lonesome synth tones reel in the listener, though. The title track and “Last American Virgin” return to the bright and illustrative songcraft Summer Camp love. The former is midtempo indictment of suburbia without Arcade Fire’s gloom-and-doom outlook. The latter is a Peter and Bjorn-esque jam that switches narratives between erstwhile lovers. The character detail is impeccable as Sankey’s character white-knockles a chair while Warmsley’s dark and dangerous character writes “his name in the salt on the countertop.” The rainy day electro-pop tale is well done.
The last two tracks on Welcome to Condale juxtapose Summer Camp’s very promising origins (“Ghost Train“) and a possible future of smashing together current nostalgic tropes analog synth-pop until listeners eventually tune out (“1988”). Thankfully, their lovable debut has more of the former than the latter. They know the importance of consistency and pacing and are only left with the task of fine-tuning their band on the road. Let’s hope their footing is more secure for their second trip down memory lane.