Album review: CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN – El Camino Real


Freeworld [Release date 11.08.14]

It’s not essential to have heard this album’s predecessor ‘La Costa Perdida’, but it certainly helps to explain the dark lyrical quality, David Lowery’s weary vocals and the sardonic nature of Camper Van Beethoven’s ruminations on southern California.

Having extolled the up side of Northern California the band has resigned itself to completing the task of guiding us through the underbelly of So-Cal from Baja.

The irony is of course is that a band Camper Van Beethoven could only have come from an area that which they frequently show in such a dark light.

Their mixture of irony, eclecticism and a loose alt. country feel probably won’t generate many new fans, save for a possible film placement, but existing fans will surely warm to Lowerey’s world weary style and intricate band interplay.

There’s also a notable dichotomy between the music and lyrics.  It’s immediately evident on the opening ‘The Ultimate Solution’ as a dead pan Lowery sings: “I was living happily, waiting for the world to end,” over a jaunty violin led melody. It’s further revealed on   the violin led ‘Camp Pendleton’,  with echoes of Arcade Fire, as David unravels his ominous dream.

The solid groove of ‘It Was Like That When We Got Here’ is another ironic piece on which Lowery shifts from an apparently dismissive style to an angst ridden confirmation of the song title.

‘Classy Dames And Able Gents’ is more eclectic and edgy with a whiff of paranoia: “We’re here to serve our government”. In contrast, the punky, up tempo  ‘Dockweiler Beach’ is more straightforward and benefits from interwoven guitar and violin from Greg Lisher and Jonathan Segel, as David  sings dispassionately about bringing a dead partner back with stuttered phrasing for effect.

Perhaps only a band like  CVB or perhaps The Tubes, could pull it off, but if the lyrics require repeated investigation, then ‘Sugar Town’ is the polar opposite, being disarmingly clear: Don’t show your face in Sugar Town, we don’t need your kind around, if you think your better than we are, you can leave at any time”.

There an intrinsic flow to the album which is picked up by Lowery’s strained vocal on the almost surreal ‘I Live In LA’.  He delivers some observational lyrics over a glistening melody and twang guitar motif: Don’t ever ask where I’ve been, don’t ever ask where the money comes from, don’t ever ask who I am, ‘cos it can’t be explained, it’s officially over security.” And there’s a heavy whiff of irony as he concludes: “I live in LA come and see me someday boy, if you wanna have a good time with me”. He also adds a lovely half rhyme in the song: “She comes in like a star, wearing jewellery and fur”, on a perfect combination of words and music that could only be Camper Van Beethoven.

Out Like A Lion’ is a much slower building piece which works its way towards a grand finish via conversational guitar and violin over Victor Krummenacher thumping bass line and Michael Urbano’s cymbal splashes, on one of the few occasions when the band stretches out.

Lowery’s vocal dominance is eventually counter balanced by the jangling guitars and uplifting feel of the instrumental link-piece ‘Goldbase’, which balances the album as a whole and leads us to the alt. country feel of the reflective relationship song ‘Darken Your Door.’

The drifter’s lament of ‘Grasshopper’ nicely rounds things off to provide a natural journey’s end: “400 miles down the Mexican coast, I’m £200 dollars from being flat broke.”

For a band with a 31 year history and who reformed in 2002, ‘El Camino Real’ suggests there’s still plenty in the tank, even if David Lowery does tread a think line been biting irony and deep lyrical observation.

‘El Camino Real’ burns with the same undimmed intensity and left-field focus that originally made the band cutting edge, but just like the rest of us they are a little older and little wiser.  The upshot is reflective mature songs and some of the best playing of their career.  Bring it on! ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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