Sunday , September 20 2020
Camper Van Beethoven's new high-concept reunion album. . .

New Roman Times

In this, the season of the big concept album, it’s hard to imagine any band better for this quixotic pursuit than the reformed Camper Van Beethoven. The band – which once recorded a track-by-track adaptation of Tusk – is well-suited to grand musical follies like New Roman Times (Pitch-A-Tent/Vanguard), a one-disc rock opera that tells the story of a young disillusioned soldier who returns to some alternate universe U.S.A. from the Middle East to become a drug-addicted homegrown terrorist. This is the band, after all, that once imagined tooling down the road in General Pinochet’s caddy. A big theme blend of Steve Earle + Zappa is right up their alley.
True to the form, Times comes packaged with a booklet telling its story through interstitial one-liners between the song lyrics, but when it comes down to it, you can listen to the disc and barely pay attention to its “story.” In format, the sounds like many of the best early Camper Van releases (Telephone Free Landslide Victory, for instance), blending deftly sloppy worldbeat instrumentals with roots rock ‘n’ country supporting wryly surreal lyrics. Lead singer Dave Lowery maintains his trademark deadpan delivery – which may fail him during the disc’s more serious moments (the ethereally mournful title number, for example) but remains beautifully suited to a Lynch-ian country love song like “That Gum You Like Is Back in Style” – while guitarman Greg Lisher and violinist Jonathan Segel are given plenty of opportunity to display their alt-prog chops. The band assays everything from Kansas-styled pomp (check out Segel during the extended instrumental section of the fetishized weaponry celebration, “White Fluffy Clouds”) to their trademark Tex-Mex ska (“Los Tigres Traficantes”), with plenty of shut-up-and-play-yer-guitar riffery (“The Poppies of Balmorhea”) alongside trippy country ballads and the inevitable backwards trackwork.
The album follows the travails of an unnamed hero, a braindead mope who enlists out of dreams of glory (“51-7,” which manages to quote from both “Space Oddity” and “Beast of Burden”) but quickly becomes disenchanted once he realizes that not everybody in country is grateful for the American presence. The story’s limited PoV pretty much guarantees that we don’t get any deep political analysis (our hero goes from bemoaning the fact that “Might Makes Right” to vowing that he’ll die for hot “Hippy Chix”), but it’s true to the character. Occasionally, Times makes some puzzling digressions – two songs ostensibly centered around an anonymous retired intelligence officer and a jaunty country jig that’s apparently sung by the Unabomber (“Studied mathematics at Berkeley; Now I don’t like society.”) – not unusual for concept elpees, actually. Returning from his tour of duty minus a foot, our protagonist takes a job in “occupied California,” working for TexasSecurIntellicorp and ultimately getting seduced by a resistance group. The disc ends with a discotheque getting blown up and our newborn resistance fighter making ready to embark on a suicide bombing mission with a chorus of comrades. At which point, the Camper Van fan is probably saying to him/herself: “Thank God, this band’s not dependent on Nashville airplay.”
In its best moments – and there are lots of ’em – New Roman Times stays true to the throw-it-all-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks tactics of these West Coast wiseasses. Tricky tempo changes and evocative multi-culti rootsiness abound (I dare you to resist shouting “Hey!” at apt moments during “R ‘n’ R Uzbekistan”). If no immediate college rock hit stands out like “Take the Skinheads Bowling” or “Good Guys & Bad Guys” did on their respective releases, the disc is stronger than a pre-breakup offering than Key Lime Pie. There are so many ways that this reunion project could’ve gone so terribly wrong; that it didn’t is a happy surprise in a pop year that’s been packed with ’em. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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