[12 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In a recent interview I had with Camper Van Beethoven bassist Victor Krummenacher, he informed me that there were enough songs left over from the La Costa Perdida sessions to start a whole other album. Of course, he couldn’t offer many details beyond that. “It seems to me if we can pull off going into the studio again, then we will. I don’t know when that is, you know, nothing’s written in stone,” he admitted.
Things move rather slowly in the pop world, so fans were prepared to wait a while for the band’s next move. After all, it was a nine-year wait for La Costa Perdida. However, David Lowery and California college radio’s favorite bunch of indie smart-asses made short work of it, delivering El Camino Real just one calendar year after La Costa Perdida. Wouldn’t you know it, the two albums are thematically related as well. La Costa Perdida was a musical appraisal of northern California’s near-mythical “lost coast”. El Camino Real takes the narrative down south to explore the Golden State’s better-known regions. If you liked the last album, then you’ll like this one too. Just know that there is no seven-minute sing-along like “Northern California Girls” this time.
El Camino Real‘s 39 minutes function as a puzzle piece to Camper’s overall appeal. Previously, this band would assemble albums with 16, 17 or 19 songs to them with plenty of diverse styles to match the quantity. For the sessions of these last two releases, the approach is considerably distilled. There is only one instrumental here, “Goldbase”, and it is curiously not quirky. But if the sound of El Camino Real doesn’t capture the band at the most vital stage in their career, it at least makes a case for them as a creative force. All 11 ideas are of good stock, never straying, allowing Camper to flex their ability to travel as a unit.
After ten seconds of sound effects, the lead-off track “The Ultimate Solution” kicks open the barn door, marching minor chords in hand, with Jonathan Segel’s violin gliding alongside Greg Lisher’s slide guitar. “I was living happily / Waiting for the world to end / Eating pickled cabbage in a taqueria,” Lowery sings in a mannered tone, often his delivery of choice these days. “Dockweiler Beach” tells the story of a man, having lost his significant other to a watery grave, promising to wait for an eternity to see her body resurrect. Again, David Lowery’s delivery on the verses is stoic and his intentional intermittent stutter doesn’t feel like it belongs. Too bad, because the music is a rush and the lyrics can rise to the occasion when they want to—“I am waiting at El Segundo / I am waiting for that rogue wave / Bring your body back.”
As a vocalist, Lowery puts more feeling into “I Live in L.A.”, a midtempo ode to Los Angeles’s crazy social life. It’s got a catchy chorus, vivid imagery of “Cowboy boots and shaved heads / Italian suits tattooed necks” and David Lowery almost singing out of his range. Under different cultural circumstances, it could be a summer hit. The song’s upbeat cousin “It Was Like That When We Got There” is Lowery recalling an L.A. party that got a little intense thanks to a wandering brush fire: “An Endless pool of summer light / Pasadena burning bright.” He also raises his voice for the chorus of the “Classy Dames and Able Gents” who are there “...to serve our government”. And with “I work Greenbriar / I worked for Foresythe Associates”, our protagonist admits to a rather unusual vocation.
The nice thing about El Camino Real is that Camper Van Beethoven do not seem too preoccupied with sounding like their former selves. For better and/or worse, the band came across as a little self-conscious at times on 2004’s New Roman Times, trying to convince people that it was the same band that made Telephone Landslide Victory. But for the breezy likes of “Camp Pendleton”, they just let the steady 4/4 tumble out—dramatic fluxes included.
The album’s closer “Grasshopper” mirrors La Costa Perdida‘s somber farewell “A Love for All Time”: “Oh Lord if you get me out of this place / I’ll never stray from the straight and narrow way”. “Young Camper is very different from older Camper” Krummenacher told me matter-of-factly, and it only makes sense that their self-imposed rules would shift over time. That’s not to say that you’ll find no traces of the past. You can hear a little bit of “Sweethearts” in the alt-twang of “I’ll Never Darken Your Door”. The instrumental leads that frame “Classy Dames and Able Gents” and “The Ultimate Solution” could be dropped into any number of past releases. And the swift see-saw motion of “Dockweiler Beach”‘s verses are a little too weird and intense for, say, Cracker to pull off.
You don’t have to be from California to enjoy El Camino Real. Yes, the stories told inside can be geographically specific, but the themes of work, joy, paranoia and peace are universal ones. Camper Van Beethoven, in their newfound maturity, addresses them all in a musical manner that reminds you that no one else sounds quite like them. Even still today.