Camper Van Beethoven’s “El Camino Real” Captures California Reality Better Than Steinbeck

It was in the early ’90s, after David Lowery had moved east and formed Cracker, that he described in an interview with Rolling Stone the Santa Cruz milieu in which the early Camper Van Beethoven albums had been hatched.  He described Santa Cruz as combining “carrot juice and cigarettes,” an image you can practically taste.  A California environment that is simultaneously life affirming and louche, organic and carcinogenic, has formed a paradox at the heart of so many of his best songs, whether he’s operating in his Camper or his Cracker guise.  In the most recent Cracker album, Sunrise In The Land Of Milk and Honey, it is clear that Lowery can view California through the honey light of its magical past.  On Camper’s new one, the excellent El Camino Real, he’s back to understanding the state’s duality, not just the split between north and south, nor even California’s perpetual balancing act between bringing on the future while being mired in a dystopian present, but between, well, carrot juice and cigarettes.

Let’s give Camper Van Beethoven the accord they are due.  Let’s not think of them as an ’80s nostalgia band — they’re far from it, as anyone who has seen their live shows lately can attest.  Let’s credit them not simply with superb musicianship, their ability to rotate between gypsy ska, punk rock and Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd, a band that could as easily play Bonnaroo and a bar mitzvah.  Let’s give them their due as having created, in 2004’s New Roman Time, not just the most impressive artistic work on the tragedy and absurdity of the Iraq War, but a thematic fantasy that captured the madness of post-9/11 America in the Bush years better than anything so far to come from our crop of major novelists.

We didn’t much like last year’s La Costa Perdida, which was a look at Northern California: to us, the songs just weren’t melodically realized, there was too much irony and edge even for an ironist.  El Camino Real, though, is a complete winner.  “It Was Like That When We Got Here” is as excellent a sunny rocker as you are likely to hear this surfing season, “Dockweiler Beach” sounds as if it could easily have come off Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, and while  “I Live In LA” will never be adopted as the Clippers’ theme song, its anthemic structure boot stomps anything you’ll ever hear from Randy Newman or any of the city’s faux-ironic boosters.  We don’t pretend to understand why the album’s best song, “City of Industry,” shows up only as an iTunes extra, but we’re not complaining.  This is the best album Lowery’s bands have released since New Roman Times a decade ago.  Even as California waits for the Big One, all that real estate sliding into the sea, Camper fiddles and watches it burn.


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