Camper van Beethoven
New Roman Times
o along with recent releases by the Streets and Green Day, Camper van Beethoven's New Roman Times makes it look like 2004 is the Year of the Concept Album. No wait, the Year of the Rock Opera. Although the Streets aren't rock. Hold on. Um, okay, how 'bout this:
Following on the heels of the beloved Mission of Burma and the Pixies, 80s college radio oddballs Camper van Beethoven have returned, making 2004 the Year Indie Bands Made Reunions Respectable. Made Reunions Credible. Post-Punk Bands. A bit wordy either way. Actually, forget all that.
As one of the more immediately recognizable voices on college radio in the late 1980s, Camper van Beethoven were never easy to pigeonhole. They were occasionally spoken of alongside the folk-rock janglers of the REM crowd, or grouped in with novelty ironists like Mojo Nixon, but the truth is Camper never really fit any of those molds. Now, a decade and a half after the release of their swan-song-cum-masterpiece Key Lime Pie, the original members have reunited and, having first taken the time to clear out the vaults (an outtakes comp, a two-CD cover of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk), recorded a new full-length LP. Rejoice, nerds.
The band members remained musically active with various projects in the intervening years. As such, the sound is significantly evolved in places (and not at all in others). But the one constant that carries over wholly unchanged from CVBv1 is that the band still doesn't quite fit in with anyone else; the best terms on which to judge them remain their own.
New Roman Times is, as mentioned previously, a concept album. While a few of the songs seem to have been written before the plot was agreed upon (notably "The Long Plastic Hallway", with lyrics about the band's early days), for the most part the narrative coheres quite successfully. The story is of a young man from the Republic of Texas who enlists in an elite military unit following a "catastrophic attack" (by terrorists?). Like Ron Kovik and John Kerry before him, he is injured and becomes disillusioned with the war's cause. Upon returning, he travels to "occupied California" and takes a job with a private security firm while hanging out with "drug dealers and arms traffickers". Also, I think his brother is the lone bomber in the cabin, but I'm not sure. And at one point avant-garde composer Steve Reich has a pop hit. Really, it does kind of make sense. Most of it.
Musically, through the first few tracks it doesn't seem as though the band has reformed at all, but rather agreed to put together an album of cuts by the members' post-breakup projects: the Monks of Doom take the even tracks ("Sons of the New Golden West," "White Fluffy Clouds"), Cracker the odds ("51-7," "That Gum You Like is Back in Style"). But when "Might Makes Right" comes staggering in with its ska guitars and faux-Arabian violins, it is immediately clear that the Camper we know and love have truly returned. Did you ever imagine that combination would sound familiar and comforting? The rest of the album wanders through a virtual catalogue of the various stylistic hybrids of Camper's heyday, and manages to dream up a few new ones as well. The mood is dreamy, hazy, psychedelic. Sometimes confusing, but the band never sounds lost.
Thematically, the band could be said to have picked up right about where they left off. That is, the album could be read as a logical follow-up to Key Lime Pie. The goofy humor of their early work had been gradually phased out on their Virgin albums, and here the scarce remaining jokes are never the primary focus of the songs. Key Lime Pie contained frontman David Lowery's most topical lyrics yet, and on New Roman Times the parallels between the album's story and the real world are both plain and abundant. Camper's new work is not only as strong as ever, but also more relevant than ever before.
Of course, the band's return can hardly be termed triumphant, as such bombast has never been what Camper was about. But it can be said that Camper have modestly reclaimed their place as one of indie/alternative/college rock's great outsiders, observing and offering incisive commentary upon all they witness around them. Welcome home, boys. Cheers to the new record, and here's to many more.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2004-10-22