CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: NEW ROMAN TIMES (2004)
1) Prelude; 2) Sons Of The New Golden West; 3) 51-7; 4) White Fluffy Clouds; 5) That Gum You Like Is Back In Style; 6) Might Makes Right; 7) Militia Song; 8) R'n'R Uzbekistan; 9) Sons Of The New Golden West (reprise); 10) New Roman Times; 11) The Poppies Of Balmorhea; 12) The Long Plastic Hallway; 13) I Am Talking To This Flower; 14) Come Out; 15) Los Tigres Traficantes; 16) I Hate This Part Of Texas; 17) Hippy Chix; 18) Civil Disobedience; 19) Discotheque CVB; 20) Hey Brother.
Camper Van Beethoven's «proper» comeback album must have been one of the most interesting albums of 2004 — although, apart from a few politely positive reviews in major outlets, not a lot of people ended up noticing it: the price you pay after spending your most creative and productive decade as an underground semi-joke act and then disappear off the radars and stay off them while the musical world around you dies, resurrects, and forgets that you ever existed in the first place. But for those few true heroes still willing to listen, Lowery and Co. scramble together a project that has got to count as their most serious undertaking ever.
See for yourself: New Roman Times, referring not so much to the serif typeface that I am using to write this review as to the idea that with the election of George W. Bush, humanity may have regressed two thousand years back in its evolution (hey, not my idea — address all your indignation to David Charles Lowery, San Antonio, Texas!), is a concept album... nay, actually, is a full-fledged rock opera that tells you the story of a disintegrated United States of America, in which the protagonist finds himself fluctuating between the gung-ho Republic of Texas and the free-thinking, but predictably decadent and wobbly Republic of California — now serving as a fervent volunteer in the Texas army, now seduced by the easy-livin', drug-heavy lifestyle of the West Coast, and finally going nuts over the whole thing and becoming a religious fundamentalist (the last song is allegedly about his self-indoctrination for suicide bombing). Rich enough for you?
And if the storyline itself does not suffice, then how about the music — eclectically drawing upon all the different strands of CvB's past, from country to ska to punk to pop, and throwing in some additional inspirations as well, such as progressive rock and heavy metal that they had largely shunned before 2004? The album is fairly long, but not at the expense of constantly recycling the same ideas — no two tracks, except for occasional reprises of themes, really sound alike, and most reflect a good deal of thought process and studio work invested in them. Of course, CvB were never a «lazy» band, but everything they did so far since their reunion had a certain throwaway flavor to it; well, no more — you can listen to New Roman Times six or seven times in a row and still have certain things left undiscovered about it.
Diverse, intelligent, unpredictable, humorous, well-produced, so what is there not to like? Well, as far as I am concerned — that seems to be just the problem. Camper Van Beethoven were many things in their lives, but they were never Pink Floyd, and this record is just too Floyd-ian for them, or, if you want a comparison that would be a tiny bit more accurate from a musical point of view as well, too Rush-like. In theory, these songs are well-written and professionally executed, but they aren't fun. It's as if the boys are so deeply driven by the concept that they take things far more seriously than they should, and this reflects badly on the music, because the band members are neither instrumental virtuosos nor melodic geniuses, and the best CvB material had always relied on nonchalance, nihilism, humor, and hooks to get by. New Roman Times, in comparison to that, tends to drag and sag far more often than could be deemed acceptable.
Things go bad already on the first track, ʽSons Of The New Golden Westʼ, which sounds like a cross between Larks/Red-era King Crimson (same tricky time signatures, guitar-violin interplay, general doomy heaviness, etc.) and modern brands of art-metal (especially in terms of guitar solo work). I mean, it's not bad, but... do we really need that? It sounds like a tightly focused, seriously disciplined, almost math-rock-compatible piece of work, but focus and discipline at the expense of fun was never an ideological concern for CvB, so why start now? And there's much more of the same ilk, even when the vocals arrive — ʽWhite Fluffy Cloudsʼ, for instance, is a full-fledged prog-metal workout, again, not a bad one, but these guys are too professorial to deliver a proper ass-kicking attitude.
They can still do some interesting things, even by reviving disco (ʽDiscotheque CVBʼ) and crossing it with drum machines and lyrical lead guitar, but they all sound more interesting on paper than in reality. Meanwhile, their classic ska schtick, as they rewind it on ʽMight Makes Rightʼ and the near-instrumental ʽLos Tigres Traficantesʼ, is reduced to the role of an old friend that still pops in for a drink or two, but has nothing new to tell you anyway.
In the end, the only song that properly «gets» me is the album-closing ʽHey Brotherʼ. Beginning with a "hey..." that you half-expect to be followed by "...Jude", it quickly becomes a moving soul number, only for you to discover, horrifyingly, within half a minute that it is the anthem of a suicidal terrorist — making this the only example I know of a tune where the "soul brotherhood" idea is cruelly turned on its head; but then again, why not? They make a great point here, namely, that deeply felt religious fervor that fuels so many great soul and gospel tunes can just as easily be associated with violence and the destructive side of religion, rather than the peace-and-love aspect. I have no idea if they ever do the song live — it is very inviting to sing along, but you'd be basically singing along to a declaration of faith by a 9/11 plane hijacker. Had something like this been released by a major band, there'd probably be a huge PC scandal all over the world — but I guess there are certain advantages to holding on to your underground status for decades.
That said, the audacity of ʽHey Brotherʼ does not redeem the album as a whole. It is just too heavy, and I don't mean the musical sound — I mean, it sounds as if it all came from the brain of a mathematics / social science professor (I guess Lowery is one, in a sense, given his math credentials), and everything is too detached and clinical for my tastes. I give it a thumbs up without hesitation — the concept is interesting and somewhat original, and there's so much stuff here that I will probably want to revisit the record again, and, most importantly, this is one of those comeback efforts where the artist is dead set on pushing boundaries rather than settle into a comfortable rocking chair. But ultimately, it's like an anti-utopian novel set to music where the message and the symbolism are more important than raw feeling — and so, a modern day Quadrophenia this daring rock opera is not. Good smack in the mouth of the American society circa 2004, though, and every bit as relevant in 2017.