New Roman Times – Camper Van Beethoven
Violin heavy genre hopping concept album from a band who last made music
when "Alternative Rock" was all the buzz.
If that line didn't scare you off, then you might just want to skip this
review and head out to pick up a copy of New Roman Times. Back
after a lengthy hiatus (doesn't that phrase just give you hope?), Camper
Van Beethoven spits out a beauty of a record. Like most concept albums,
New Roman Times doesn't exactly cohere as a complete story.
Rather, the album creates a world for the band to play in both lyrically
and musically. The rough outline runs something like this: young idealist
joins elite fighting unit in alternaverse of America in the wake of a
catastrophe, becomes disillusioned, plays a part in a Californian coup,
loses a foot, returns home to Texas, takes a job with a privatized militia
spying on drug dealers, gets hooked on opiates, joins the revolutionary
CVB, and martyrs himself in a righteous explosion.
The proggish violin-driven instrumental "Sons of the New Golden West"
kicks in the door, leading to the virtually irresistible (and very very
Camper) "51-7" where the young ideologue with "nothing to believe in but
god and country" and a "mom half-baked on weed and scientology" heads to
war. He's fully indoctrinated in "White Fulffy Clouds," the cock-rockin'
ode to the beauty of weaponry, but that swagger is immediately deflated by
the disarming country clop and soaring pedal steel of "That Gum You Like
Is Back In Style," a dream-like and largely non-sequiter drift replete
with twittering birds and choral backing. By this time, you've already
been slapped so many different musical directions you're almost ready for
the reggae-inflected "Might Makes Right," which finds our doubting young
soldier musing, "they want us from their villages/ who can blame 'em/ shit
blows up when we're around." Where next? Why not a fiddle-chugging
hillbilly romp leading into a nice, stomping Eastern European
instrumental. CVB isn't afraid to hit every corner of the map. You've
seen those RVs with the North American maps outlined on the side? A
colored sticker for each state and province? They lack New Mexico.
The instrumental offers a break in the story and sets the stage for the
soldier's disillusioned return home. The title track that follows is
nearly perfect. The steel guitar sweeps back in under a "bah-ba, bah-ba"
choir as the soldier takes to the rain-soaked streets of downtown Austin
in a slow moving car. Millions of bats stream into the sky as the soldier
crosses the Congress Street bridge (that's non-fiction folks, millions and
millions). Juxtaposed with the album's previous violence, the image
provides a perfect summary of the hero's disillusionment and possibly the
album's finest moment for a biased near-Austinite.
And from there, as the saying goes, the drugs take hold. The story
doesn't cohere as well, but the snapshots are vivid: soldier hooked on
narcotic flower, Los Tigres Traficantes pushing flower on the kiddos out
of ice cream trucks, jumbled bilingual missives of hate swirl in the
deserts of West Texas, hero falls in with fun-loving California kids and
again finds something worth dying for (not God or country this time but
hippie chix), paranoid visions of sedition from the couch, back-patting
rah-rah before the final plunge into adulation/infamy, a cheeky '80s
soaked dance number thrown in for good measure.
While the story isn't always convincing, the world in which the story bits
exist is, and the breadth of styles juggled is frankly dizzying. While
not a masterpiece, New Roman Times is an impressive feat and a
helluva good ride, especially for a band that abandoned its fans years ago
so David Lowery could drop black and white boxing videos on MTV. The
album proves CVB never lost a step and by many measures improved in the
interim. The brash sense of humor has been tempered by a maturity that
adds gravity to even the album's lightest moments. But despite the
maturity, despite the gravity, despite the timely weight of the subject
matter, the band seems at all turns to be having a blast. _New Roman
Times_ is serious fun — and proof that Camper Van Beethoven has not
only gas in the tank, but plenty to talk about as they hit the road.