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Suburban Shore

(Plug Research; US: 6 Apr 2004; UK: Available as import)

Here’s a hypothetical conversation between an A&R person and a recording label boss:

A&R Person: “Hey, you’ve gotta hear this band I checked out last night!”
Boss: “Well, what’s the scoop?”
A&R Person: “They’re called Camping. A three piece.”
Boss: “Yeah, OK, but what do they sound like? What’s the pitch—are they a Coldplay, a Strokes, techno—what?”
A&R: “Actually, they’re one of those DC bands that do Brazilian bossa nova with the German lyrics. One of those.”
Boss: “One of what?!?”

Yep, that’s right: Camping are just your average Washington, DC-based indie bossa nova band with a German singer and German lyrics. You can’t well accuse them of bandwagon jumping.

To treat Camping and their Suburban Shore album as a pure novelty would do a great injustice to its substance, though. Henning Fritzenwalder and his American pals Stephen Gardner and Ben Bailes (both of Chessie) are serious about what they do, their rhythmic blueprint of choice belying an indie sensibility for darker atmospheres and stark emotions. Although you might at first be surprised to hear Fritzenwalder singing instead of Joao Gilberto, everything soon falls into place.

Take “Aufgeregt (Agitated)”. It’s bossa nova, all right, but the propulsive bass, shots of horns, and ringing guitar harmonics that pierce its surface give it a sense of tension and urgency that you wouldn’t normally get from the Brazilian crowd. Similarly, “Verbrechen (Crime)”, with its dissonant ringing sounds, minor chords, and dirty patches of guitar, is artful post-rock that happens to include elements of Latin music—not the other way around. To put it another way, it’s easy to imagine fans of Tortoise, The Sea and Cake (whose Sam Prekop ventured into similar bossa nova territory on his solo album), and even Joy Division getting into Camping’s curious amalgam of styles, but it’s tougher to imagine Gilberto lovers warming to it so readily.

Not everything on Suburban Shores is so abstract. “Fotografie (Photograph)”, the album’s prettiest tune, floats by languidly on a river of strings, acoustic guitar and subtle percussion. “Schneesturm (Snowstorm)” has a simple, two-chord melody whose delicacy is accentuated by washes of white noise; snowstorms, if you will. The nocturnal “Treppenhaus (Stairwell)” is moved along by little more than a cabasa and a minimal drum machine pattern.

While it may be difficult to imagine a brash, guttural language like German playing well with such mellow, moody sounds, Fritzenwalder makes it work. His subtle cooing is definitely in the Gilberto style, and only on “Strassen (Streets)”, when he crams too many words into each measure, do language and music prove a difficult match. Most of the time, Fritzenwalder gets the intended emotion across through inflection; even without translation, it’s easy to hear the longing in “Photografie” or the indignation in “Verbrechen”.

Sure, you could pass Suburban Shore off as high-minded, self-indulgent, and inaccessible. And, even at a mere 10 tracks and 36 minutes, it’s a little more than you’ll need in one sitting. But dismissing Camping outright means missing out on their considerable talents—and charms.

John Bergstrom has been writing various reviews and features for PopMatters since 2004. He has been a music fanatic at least since he and a couple friends put together The Rock Group Dictionary in third grade (although he now admits that giving Pat Benatar the title of "first good female rocker" was probably a mistake). He has done freelance writing for Trouser Pressonline, Milwaukee's Shepherd Express, and the late Milk magazine and website. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and two kids, both of whom are very good dancers.

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