The triumphant return of Camper Van Beethoven. Unless you’re one of those weird music geeks who never really fit into the main gist of what was happening in the college music scene during the ’80s (alternative-alternative?), this won’t be nearly as exciting as, say, the return of the Pixies, or even a new album from the Cure.
Too bad for you.
But if you are one of those fringe weirdos who understood (or at least enjoyed) what CVB was up to in its heyday, and either celebrated or lamented when Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart broke into “the big time”, and/or were quite upset when the band split apart, then have I got an album for you….
When I reviewed Camper’s 2002 box set release, Cigarettes and Carrot Juice, I admitted to having missed most of the band’s history as they snarled and laughed through the late ’80s and early ’90s, but since then I’ve come to really love those discs. I also lamented that a certain sense of musical freedom seems to have been lost in the intervening years. And yet now New Roman Times has arrived with 19 songs of brand new material to see if that loose sense of play can be reclaimed.
However, less than content to be a band trying to reclaim its glory days or prove that it’s still relevant after more than a decade’s absence, CVB has come back with an album that is easily the most ambitious thing the group has ever recorded: a quasi rock opera set in a semi-fictional political environment that mirrors our own nation at war. True to form, the band isn’t pussyfooting around with a disc that seeks to win back old listeners by playing it safe. New Roman Times — taking its name from inverting the ubiquitous font Times New Roman and using it to make a sly statement about empires — is a risky endeavor, tackling the doubly-dubious task of being both political and being a story arc that verges on rock opera, not to mention being a comeback from a group that was never immensely popular at its peak. Yes, indeed, ambition in spades.
While the advance copy of New Roman Times doesn’t include a CD insert, it does give brief descriptions of how each song advances the story. A mixture of commentary and sci-fi vision, Lowery has stated that it’s not intended to be so much a commentary on the war in Iraq, or the war on terror, but more a commentary on the political divide within the United States. Here’s the gist of the tale: After a catastrophic attack on the US, forces convene to reshape the country as we prepare for war. The main focus is on a young Texan man who joins the military to fight for his country and is shipped to the Middle East. While there, he begins to doubt the justice of his mission, but things come to an end when he loses a foot in combat and is shipped back home. He returns to Texas jaded and broken, finally taking to the road to escape himself and winding up at an oasis where he samples a narcotic flower.
During his tour of duty, things in the Republic of California have heated up and right wing militias and civil unrest have conspired to leave the state in the hands of a quasi-governmental corporation named TexSecurIntellicorp. The soldier joins the company and works as a go-between for arms and drug traffickers while continuing his spiral into narcotic addiction. Finally, hitting rock bottom and realizing that he hates working for the fascist forces in California, he seeks out the rebel resistance organization, winkingly called the CVB, and tries to join up. When he finally contacts the group, he learns that they’re supported by aliens who’ve decided to intervene for the sake of humanity’s future. Finally, having joined the CVB and supported by some sort of spiritual vision, the former soldier decides to become a suicide bomber for the cause, bringing the whole story disturbingly full-circle.
So Chekhov it’s not, and at times it’s a vague and minimally explained concept, but that’s really not the point. You get the sense that Camper Van Beethoven isn’t really shooting for a true rock opera, but more of a framework to shape their songs and incidentally tell a story. New Roman Times harkens back all the way to Telephone Free Landslide Victory in its style and musical reach, staying true to CVB’s aesthetic of lyrically-driven songs mixed freely with instrumentals and dipping into a well of different styles, but either maturity or a clearer sense of purpose (or both) has given the band a format that helps unify their work into something more readily digested. That’s not to say that Telephone Free or II & III are inferior for their sprawl — if anything, these discs are still the pinnacles of the dizzying freedom in CVB’s catalogue — but this kind of structure helps elevate New Roman Times as a return to form far more than a re-hash of Key Lime Pie would.
Musically, this disc proves that the intervening years in Monks of Doom and Cracker and various side-projects haven’t depleted CVB’s bag of tricks. While Lowery is a more obvious front man these days, the songs are still mightily hinged on Jonathan Segel’s violin playing, and the song credits on New Roman Times are spread across the group’s members, with everyone contributing to the various textures and tones. If any lingering in-fighting remains, it’s not evident in the music. And, as always, Camper mixes heavy doses of psychedelic rock, punk, ska, country, power pop, and ethnic flavors into the blend that made the band distinctive throughout its career.
On the other hand, weighed on its own merits as an album that takes a lot of risks, New Roman Times doesn’t completely hit a bull’s-eye. That the disc starts in a very contemporary and familiar situation and winds up somewhere more in line with a Philip K. Dick story is part of the problem. With the aid of the brief story descriptions, the first half of the disk is sinister and gripping. Songs like the muscular metal of “White Fluffy Clouds” or the slow ska burn of “Might Makes Right” might be easily read from the lyrics alone, but the addition of a back story to instrumentals like the fiddle-heavy prog-rock of “New Sons of the Golden West” or the Eastern ethnic tones of “R and R Uzbekistan” makes the songs darker and more chilling than they would otherwise be read. Being able to relate the songs to the current situation in the world makes them weightier and more meaningful as well, even up to the point of the soldier’s return in the title track.
But the otherwise excellent, ’60s light-psychedelic instrumental romp of “The Poppies of Balmorhea” marks the transition point to the more fantastical half of the disc, and once the connection to real life becomes more fabricated, the story loses some of its power. Where “Militia Song” stings because of its knowing references to Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, a song like “I Am Talking to This Flower” is harder to grok due to its fictional setting and characters. Similarly, while “That Gum You Like is Back in Style” quotes the Twin Peaks line and only ostensibly fits into the story, it hangs together on its own as a song, whereas “I Hate This Part of Texas” is a great warped psychedelic freak-out, but its hard to imagine as its own unit. Conversely, “Hippy Chix” is a great song on its own, despite being perhaps too reminiscent of Cracker and having lyrics that are entirely about plot development for the story.
Then there’s the transition of “Discotheque CVB”, a surprisingly straight-ahead, ’70s funk wah-wah instrumental that sounds like it was lifted directly from an old soundtrack, to the closing track, “Hey Brother”, which ends the story abruptly and with little explanation. It would, perhaps, be even more odd if Camper Van Beethoven released something as neat and pat as Tommy, but the fact remains that New Roman Times seems to dissolve more than resolve.
Despite some failures on the story-telling side, New Roman Times is a fantastic disc if you already happen to be a Camper Van Beethoven fan. One of the best “for the fans” jokes comes along in “The Long Plastic Hallway”, which, despite primarily acting as a further continuation of the ex-soldier’s story, is also undercut with plenty of nods to CVB’s own history. Dropping the name of their own box set, the song opens with the lines, “Cigarettes and carrot juice / Marijuana and lots of booze / I threw the flower of youth into that stew”, while later the song refers to Box of Laffs opening for Talking Heads, Box of Laffs being the band that preceded the formation of Camper Van Beethoven. In fact, while “New Roman Times” may be the true centerpiece of this disc, “The Long Plastic Hallway” might be its strongest track.
Overall, New Roman Times is a strong return to form from a band that hasn’t lost its step despite a 15-year break. Camper Van Beethoven continues to have a lot to offer a music scene as diverse as the band’s own output. Recently returning to the road as a touring unit, CVB has been playing small clubs where the intimate setting recalls the group’s past endeavors. In a year that’s seen a surprising number of exciting reunions, this non-stadium, non-festival outing seems like an appropriate place for a band that always labored on the edges, doing its best work beneath the popular radar. And as New Roman Times proves, that same sense of omnivorous musical freedom sounds as good as ever.