Camper Van Beethoven New Roman Times
7.5 of a possible 10
Key Tracks: 51-7, New Roman Times, Might Makes Right
Camper Van Beethoven was one of my favorite bands when I was in college, which I suppose dates both of us. Their skewed sense of humor, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink instrumentation and refusal to take themselves too seriously appealed to me then as it does now.
As I graduated, CVB lost their original violinist but added a new one and released Key Lime Pie, a solid album but a bit darker than their previous efforts. This was to be their last, as leader David Lowery went on to form the more commercial but still 0ff-center Cracker. I enjoyed the Cracker albums (which also became a bit darker as the years progressed) but it just wasn’t the same- the carefree goofiness and mock ethnic melodies of CVB were missing, a memory of college days gone by.
A couple of years ago, I was surprised to find a new Camper Van Beethoven album on the shelves- but it really wasn’t new at all, it was a cover of the entire Fleetwood Mac Tusk album recorded years earlier. A tour followed, but Cracker remained active and Camper Van’s resurgence seemd like a one-off, "for old times sake" affair. A box set of earlier albums and a previously unavailable live cd (the brilliantly-titled Greatest Hits Played Faster) was released, along with another tour. Just when I thought that was the last I had heard of CVB, I heard that a new album was coming out in the fall of 2004. It was like finding out you get to go back to hang out at school for a weekend with all of your buddies there, no responsibities and no studying. I bristled with anticipation.
Needless to say, no album could live up to the expectation of bringing me back to my carefree collegiate ways, but New Roman Times certainly does not embarass itself. In fact, when it’s on, it matches up with some of the band’s best work. And that this is accomplished after 15 years since the orignial line-up played together is really no mean feat. Oh yeah, did I also mention that this is a concept album?
Ah, yes- the concept album. Where rock musicians put on their stroytelling hats and try to create an epic work which over the course of an hour or so will tell a great tale which will change the world. Even at their best (The Wall, Tommy, Quadrophenia), the concept album ultimately is fighting a losing battle- trying to take the disposable format of a rock album and elevate it to high art. The best concept albums have always included more filler than their non-thematic bretheren, and most crumble under the weight of their own ambition.
New Roman Times suceeds where many concept albums have failed as the newly-reformed Campers thankfully remembered what made their group work in the first place- an off-kilter approach to the established rock format and an out and out refusal to take themselves too seriously. The concept is explained as one line under each song in the liner notes, and draws a certain paralell to recent world events- a catastrophic attack occurs, a young Texan joins the military, the soldier has doubts, the soldier rebels against the ideals he once revered. Oh sure, I left out the bits on the fascist regime in California, narcotic flowers and the like- but never does the concept overpower the songs. The concept itself is loose, and the songs stand well enough on their own. The political messages are from the far left, and this comes across without the narrative in the cd booklet. The themes aren’t that different from what was surfacing on Key Lime Pie and follow along the same anti-right lines as most rock music. CVB’s humor and their unique sound keeps everything in check.
Yeah, the sound. I’m glad they played their old songs for a couple of years before heading back into the studio, as the ethnic-folk-in-a-blender of their earliest albums comes shining through on the fake Eastern European "R n’ R Uzbekistan", the giddy hoedown "Militia Song" and the fake ska of "Might Makes Right", among others. The band also paid attention to their more commercial past- "New Roman Times" is a country lament to rival Key Lime Pie’s "Sweetehearts", and "51-7" is as catchy and as rocking as anything they’ve recorded (with the possible exception of "Take the Skinheads Bowling," of course.) Not every track is a winner, but the percentage is higher than most albums, concept or not.
Fans of CVB- like me- will be happy to have an old friend back around, and it’s as close to old times as one might expect. Neophytes are better off exploring one of their first three albums instead- open-minded music fans who don’t mind a little humor or a lot of slightly-off violin will enjoy those and probably wind up here eventually.