We’re a solid decade into the second act of Camper Van Beethoven’s run, having returned in the early ’00s with the release of their version of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, reissues of older albums, a long string of live shows and, in 2004, their last album, New Roman Times. Almost nine years later, we get the follow up seemingly out of nowhere. La Costa Perdida shares little in common with its predecessor, and this is both a good development and curious shift.
Camper Van Beethoven have always been inconspicuous in spite of their eccentric pop leanings. They never got their due the first time around, and now they seem content to be an excellent live band knocking it out for devoted fans. Still, if their profile has been low key, their music rarely is. Even on the straight-ahead (yet classic) Key Lime Pie, there’s no shortage of curious lyrical choices and fascinating musical shifts, loud breaks from the norm. New Roman Times was probably as loud a break as they ever offered, a return album that found them in rock-opera mode, telling a Bush-era tale of a broken nation, an America of warring factions. Like most rock operas, its narrative was basically incoherent, but it made for an interesting — if uneven — set of genre-hopping, oddball tunes.
La Costa Perdida isn’t normal or banal by any stretch, but it is a far more subdued offering than we might be used to. It’s simply ten laid-back, psych-pop and Cali-sunkissed-jams that play to all the band’s strengths. Opener “Come Down the Coast” finds David Lowery pining earnestly, and the band twangs and glides around him, pedal steel and mandolin spinning loose knots around the swaying melody of the song, a wistful tune that finds Lowery inviting a series of women, by name, to “come down and see me sometime.” It’d be romantic, even sweet, if he didn’t seem to be looking for any port in a storm.
It sets up an album not so much about escape as return, one that takes the traditional Americana idea of exploring west and twists it, often returning to a west already explored (“Come Down the Coast”, “Northern California Girls”) or using this kind of travel to hide from trouble (the title track) or doing the exact opposite of exploring, stagnating sweetly under the sun (“Summer Days”). It’s an album caught between enjoying the take-it-easy present and feeling the weight of nostalgia. “Northern California Girls” is about being lured back from the East Coast, but it conflates good weather with a romanticized path (“you know there ain’t nobody like me out there”).
And so it’s an album unmoored in quiet, often fascinating ways. These characters — from the killer in “La Costa Perdida” to the lovelorn voice on “Come Down the Coast” — are comfortable with their landscape, and in that way aren’t prone to wander in any physical way, but their minds and hearts are constantly adrift. The music itself seems stuck between these two poles. There are some interesting twists in the formula here, both lyrically — “Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out” gives this a nice touch of dark humor, while “I Was Too High for the Love-In” is exactly the kind of goofball pop they excel at — and musically. “Northern California Girls” is built on a chorus of voices that remind you of the Beach Boys without sounding like them, and then twist it into something far dustier and wide-open than Brian Wilson could have pulled off. Drifting closer “A Love For All Time” is awash in echoing guitars, heartbreaking backing vocals, and huge, treated string sections.
La Costa Perdida often shines in these hazy moments, the moments that match the narcotic feel of the past with the carefree present. Some of this, though, also feels rote. The ska-folk turn of “Peaches in the Summertime” is no turn at all because, at this point, we expect it of Camper Van Beethoven. Similarly, the bluesy jam of “You Got to Roll” has some sweet guitar work, but it also feels like a tone exercise, a smirking take on blues-rock, that doesn’t quite work because we’ve heard them do better versions of this before.
So Camper Van Beethoven’s new album is a solid entry into their catalog, but also a tricky one to place. New Roman Times was the gutsy, uneven return record, following classics like Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie, while the earlier stuff was all chock full of fan favorites and perfect concert fodder. Where this fits into all that might take some time to tell, but for now it feels like a decent batch of songs that give the band some new stuff to play out on the road. It’s not a set that will surprise, but it’s also sure to satisfy, though for how long remains to be seen.