Camper Van Beethoven – That gum you like!
Back during the comparatively benevolent days of the first Bush’s administration, Camper Van Beethoven never used to like to talk about politics. Then at the height of their popularity (though the band didn’t know it at the time), they used to couch their lyrics in enough vague generalities and dadaesque absurdities to confuse just about everyone. In fact, it’s a testament to the utter opacity of Camper Van Beethoven’s songs that both liberals and conservatives claimed the band as their own.
The group, which broke up in 1990 but has grown in stature ever since, used their seven-year tenure to hold forth on subjects ranging from Stalin to class inequality to Jack Ruby with enough erudite insensibleness to convey the impression they were saying something quite profound while in reality never really saying very much.
This explains why filmmaker Michael Moore called up lead singer David Lowery and asked to use Camper’s iconic novelty song “Take The Skinheads Bowling” in his 2002 documentary Bowling For Columbine (Moore wound up using Teenage Fanclub’s cover version instead; there were no hard feelings). It also explains a request Lowery recently got from the maker of the documentary Michael Moore Hates America asking for permission to use “Low”, a song from Camper Van Beethoven’s successor band Cracker, in his upcoming film. (“Sure,” Lowery told him. “Uh, I guess.”)
“There’s a lot of people who missed the irony in Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven,” is the only way Lowery can explain it. “They thought that we were really right-wing.”
New Roman Times, the band’s first all-new album since 1989’s Key Lime Pie (not counting their remake of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, recorded in 1987 but held in the vaults until 2002), ought to clear things up. Due out October 12 on their own Pitch-A-Tent label with distribution via Vanguard, it’s a concept album about a soldier involved in a right-wing coup of California. New Roman Times is a funny, messy, incisive and decidedly political piece of work — the combined result of two Gulf Wars, the senior and junior Bush administrations, a weakness for space alien references, and a band coming off a much-needed fourteen-year hiatus.
“It wouldn’t have been possible to do this record if the past couple of years hadn’t happened,” Lowery figures. “Story-wise, we couldn’t have done it. But musically, hopefully we could have evolved to this [if Camper had stayed together].”
The New Roman Times story goes something like this: In an indeterminate time in an alternate universe, the United States has dissolved into factions. A working-class soldier from the Christian Republic of Texas joins an Army Rangers-type unit and goes off to fight in the liberal Republic of California, which has been taken over in a right-wing coup. Wounded, he returns home, gets hooked on drugs, and goes back to occupied California as either a mercenary or some kind of intelligence operative (it’s hard to tell). He eventually joins a resistance group called the CVB and becomes a suicide bomber, an aspect of the plot handled with surprising delicacy. In the last track he firebombs a disco, or so it seems, anyway, though Lowery actually put that song, “Discoteque CVB”, second-to-last because he thought it sounded better that way. In between are preludes, musical interludes, and a song sung entirely in broken Spanish. A libretto may be included, though it won’t necessarily help.
As you might have guessed, New Roman Times isn’t exactly Jonathan Swift. It suffers from a lack of narrative intent and what seems like an occasional failure of nerve, and parts of it are so muddled as to be unmanageable. It’s nevertheless a work of impressive ambition and occasional genius; at the very least, it’s the Abbey Road of neo-futuristic sci-fi country-folk concept albums.
In a year that’s producing an unusual number of musical polemics delivered by everyone from Steve Earle to Green Day, New Roman Times offers more of a glancing sideways blow than a direct hit, though it’s frequently a more pointed work than the band’s past history might suggest. “You have to be more vocal in your views these days,” Lowery observes. “But I don’t want to make it seem like we had some grand idea. We didn’t. I hope the tone isn’t serious.”
Lowery says Camper never really considered making a more sober, non-futuristic work, one that dealt less metaphorically with the second Iraq War, say, or the present Bush administration. “I guess it would have sounded like Rickie Lee Jones’ [“Tell Somebody (Repeal The Patriot Act)”], and I don’t know if that’s the proper voice for Camper Van Beethoven,” he said. “Once you’re in a band and have an audience, your sound and who you are don’t really belong to you anymore, and you have to honor that.”
That the original lineup of Camper Van Beethoven would ever reunite, let alone make a record that might require a libretto, was at one time considered extremely unlikely. “Ten years ago, if anyone had said [Camper was getting back together], I would have berated them even for thinking such a thing,” admits violinist Jonathan Segel.