Out of the wastes of Minnesota (OK, Saint Paul) came Hippo Campus, an indie rock band formed in 2013 that went on (so far) to release three albums of original material in three years, from 2017 to 2019. The outfit had moved from, at their inception, a dream or bedroom pop sound into tropical-influenced rock (with that ethereal pop sticking around) for what I would guess is their most popular work. Now, as evidenced most strongly by the impetus for this piece, the EP GOOD DOG, BAD DREAM (2021), Hippo Campus is doubling down on heavier rock and electronic sounds. The band cultivated its reputation, in addition to a beloved live act, with a series of EPs before their latest. TARZAN REJECT (2013), BASHFUL CREATURES (2014), SOUTH (2015), WARM GLOW (2017), and the aforementioned GOOD DOG, BAD DREAM are all great listens to give a fuller, and the original, picture of Hippo Campus. But in accordance with how I write these pieces usually, I’ve taken to their discography to evaluate and rank only their three “full-fledged” releases. While I’ve included its sequel (we’ll get to that), I’ve omitted the album-length DEMOS I (2019), as it is a presentation of demo versions of the songs on Hippo Campus’ sophomore release, BAMBI, not original music. Anyways, that’s a lot of qualification for a young band, and a long-winded bit of background for three quite pleasant albums.
#3 — BAMBI (2018)
Favorite track: “Anxious”
I suppose BAMBI is technically a sophomore slump for Hippo Campus. The band’s second LP turned a bit away from the sound of LANDMARK, which had been escalated across their EPs up until that point. This “flavor” of Hippo Campus still carries the ethereal qualities of their work, and certain tracks do more than others, but the whole of BAMBI is built on synth-y and electronic sounds that render the whole thing a bit more…cheap. Even though I vibe with “Anxious,” its chorus demonstrates the soaring sounds the band was going for but didn’t quite hit, after a quainter, smaller focus. But don’t get me wrong: BAMBI is good. I’ve described these qualities as distinguishing marks in a negative sense. But on the flipside, the renewed sound can be quite exciting, also within the aforementioned “Anxious.” Even as a standout track, though, it doesn’t have me begging for more; BAMBI is a pleasant listen, but one that doesn’t stick with me for long.
#2 — LANDMARK (2017)
Favorite track: “Way It Goes”
Hippo Campus’ debut LP came after a steady build in popularity and chops across their first three EPs. And it delivered on the promise each one embodied, escalating their dreamy yet groovy sound into a more rounded listening and emotional experience. LANDMARK’s preceding EPs could err on the side of the dreamy, but this album itself settles into that groove, and a harder beat, that latches onto my brain. “Way It Goes” is the best example of Hippo Campus’ ability to simultaneously relax me into an otherworldly state and make me want to get up and dance.
#1 — DEMOS II (2019)
Favorite track: “Cellar Door”
As mentioned, DEMOS I is omitted from this list. It makes for a somewhat strange inconsistency. But also as mentioned, that album (released earlier in the same year as DEMOS II) served as an insight into earlier versions of the tracks that appeared on BAMBI. DEMOS II, on the other hand, is a collection of wholly original songs that have yet to appear, if they ever do, in a more “polished” form on any EP or LP. I put “polished” in quotation marks because, as demonstrated by the favorable position of this album, the demos in question do not play like rough estimates of what could be. Instead, every track on DEMOS II strips down the production style of BAMBI to a sentiment that, while echoing LANDMARK and earlier EPs, indicates an attention to stronger pop hooks and the “rock” part of indie rock. “Cellar Door” has a tremendous vocal croon coming from singer and lead guitarist Jake Luppen, and it’s only one of the nine (of nine) great tracks on the album. DEMOS II is, indeed, certifiably “all killer no filler,” as far as Hippo Campus goes. And they do go, into laid-back rock territory that doesn’t just dissipate into the ether it so deftly lives within.