Archive for Camper Van Beethoven

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

Posted in Music with tags , , , on June 10, 2014 by johnbuckley100

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.

 

David Lowery’s Fair Fight

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on October 1, 2013 by johnbuckley100

The New York Times has an interesting piece today on David Lowery and his fight against the low-wage economics of being a musician in the age of Spotify and Pandora.  It references Lowery’s evisceration of that NPR intern who boasted last year that, while she loves music, she couldn’t imagine actually paying for all the songs on her hard drive, and reports on his lonely battle to get greater equity for musicians and songwriters who get paid fractions of a penny every time a song of theirs is played on Internet radio services.

In a wonderfully clueless and haughty dismissal of Lowery’s importance as an artist — “As the leader of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, Mr. Lowery had a modicum of fame in the ’80s and ’90s” — Ben Sisario reveals the mindset of those who would view Lowery as merely a cranky old man (54) telling the kids not only to get off his lawn, but to pay up for apples they took while on his property.  Sisario does report fairly on the lonely battle Lowery is waging as a recording artist with the quaint belief that he ought to be paid for the music he’s produced — which just might happen to reside as a file on, well, some 20-year old NPR intern’s computer.  He accurately paints the portrait of his isolation.  But the tone of the piece is to look at Lowery like he’s some museum piece, an old coot, complaining about how he’s been ripped off.  We’ll remember this editorial stance the next time a New York Times editor whines about the Huffington Post.

What Lowery is attempting to do is bring facts, borne of his personal experience, so that people understand the low-wage serfdom to which Internet radio subjects recording artists.  As between outright stealing of music and services like Spotify, which at least pay artists a wage, however meager, obviously the latter is preferable.  The right way to think of Lowery’s campaign is as a fact-based effort to raise the wages of songwriters and recording artists.  One can dismiss him as a grumpy old man complaining about the post-Internet economy for musicians.  Or you can see him for what he is: one of the most enduring recording and live artists of our time who has the balls to mount a thankless fight seeking equity for artists currently subject to being paid in crumbs, if at all.

On Seeing Camper Van Beethoven And Cracker On The Same Night

Posted in Music with tags , , , on May 17, 2013 by johnbuckley100

Having Camper Van Beethoven open for Cracker would send Darwin into a tizzy, for they reverse all theories of evolution.  Bands of virtuosi playing wildly inventive sets are not supposed to evolve, as David Lowery did in the early ’90s when he left Camper and formed Cracker, into straight-ahead roots rock.  Okay, maybe their trajectory followed the path of the 1970s when punk rock was the palette cleanser that saved the meal.  And yeah, we’ve been fans of both bands since their founding, so it’s not like the effect of seeing them back-to-back should have been a surprise.  But to see Cracker follow Camper, as they did last night at the State Theater, is to understand just how magnificent both bands are, and what a deceptive and underrated genius Lowery is.

If Camper Van Beethoven can be said to combine music from a gypsy wedding with the dynamics of a ska hoedown, followed by an astral launch worthy of Pink Floyd, all in the same song, then Cracker should be viewed as a band that grafted Southern rock and country onto a frame stretched by punk rock and the Rolling Stones.  Let’s just look at the bands they covered last night to get a sense of Lowery’s catholic tastes: Status Quo and the Clash (Camper), the Grateful Dead, Flamin’ Groovies, and Dwight Yoakum (Cracker).  Oh, and of course the Clash song Camper played, “White Riot,” was played as a country’n’western, just to further confound the distinctions between the two.

If Luna had ever toured with Galaxie 500, Dean Wareham fronting both bands seriatem, you’d see the same dynamic — a man dancing happily with both his first and second wives.  Last night Camper was just a wee bit off due to Victor Krummenacher being (temporarily) absent from bass chores, with David Immergluck filling in admirably, if not perfectly.  There was an opportunity cost to the deletion of Immergluck softening the sound with his pedal steel and other instruments.  Still, on songs like “All Her Favorite Fruit,” the band raised the theater’s roof.

Interestingly, Lowery came out for the Cracker set playing acoustic guitar for the first half-dozen songs, including staples like “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now).” After the complexity and swirling leads of Greg Lisher and Jonathan Segal trading off guitar and fiddle during Camper’s set, Lowery playing acoustic seemed to calm things down even as Johnny Hickman revved things up.  Some years ago, Greil Marcus disgraced himself by complaining, in his review of Sticky Fingers, that the acoustic guitar strummed in “Brown Sugar” undermined the song, when history has shown that it actually made the song.  And so it was last night: Lowery’s playing acoustic let the straight-ahead dynamic of Johnny Hickman’s clean Les Paul lines anchor things in a manner both soothing and thrilling, like stepping on the gas of a 1969 Firebird and feeling the engine roar.

Earlier this year, when La Costa Perdida came out, Camper received some Pitchfork love, unexpectedly included in the ranks of the cool.  It is, in our opinion, a bit of a letdown after the magnificent New Roman Times from 2004, which was the single best takedown of the Bush years, an album that had the conceptual balls to render the Iraq war as rock opera tragedy and farce.  Still, we’re glad to see Lowery and Camper get their due.  That Cracker, which after all once had the Pixies’ Dave Lovering on drums — can’t get cooler than that — is not ranked higher than a guilty pleasure by the rock-crit crowd is a bit of a disgrace, like someone not groking Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Are they at that level as an American rock’n’roll exemplar?  Well, they don’t have the hits to equal what Fogerty did, but after seeing Cracker again last night?  Yes, yes they are.

Cracker’s Savory Morsels Served At State Theater Gig

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on June 4, 2009 by johnbuckley100

So they were standing, like the last rock band on the planet… Yes, Cracker marched through Northern Virginia last night, playing the first of their shows that I’ve seen since, oh, the invention of the Internet.  David Lowery’s grown a beard since Camper Van Beethoven played the same venue (State Theater, Falls Church) in January, and if you want to get a sense of the difference between those fraternal twins, consider where he stands when playing with each one.  With CVB, he’s over on stage right, holding down the singing and rhythm guitar chores while Jimmy Page and Yehudi Menuhin keep the notes flying on the other side.  With Cracker, there he was at center stage, because Johnny Hickman’s gloriously lucid lead licks notwithstanding, Lowery is the center of attention.

Sunrise In The Land of Milk And Honey is a superb album, and restores Cracker’s place in the center of my heart — or maybe more accurately, back on my playlist — in a way not dissimilar to how New Roman Times restored Camper Van Beethoven’s relevance and standing.  Watching Lowery work — joestrummering the guitar and straining to hit the high notes while Johnny Hickman, with the ease of Billy Zoom, lets fly his economical licks and amazingly lyrical lines — shows just how much Cracker means to him, how important it still all is, even in the wake of relative critical indifference, to invest everything he’s got in his genially acerbic lyrics, his faux-unsophisticated singing.

They started with the title song and “Hey Brett (You Know What Time It Is)” from the new album, then went right to where it all began — “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now).”  As a band, they can still kick the milk pail over.  Middle period Cracker seemed to need to thicken the sound, to heavy the bass.  Late period Cracker seems to have rediscovered its punky Americana roots.

After the discursive amusement of Camper Van Beethoven, which mixed LA punk with gypsy music, ska, and ditties from a bar mitzvah in Kiev… to have teamed up with a straigtahead guitarist like Johnny Hickman — a guy who can reel off power chords with the smooth action of a Winchester pump gun sending another shell into the breach — well, it must have been a relief for Lowery, a new lease on life.  All that time he’d been a roots rocker trapped inside the surfer body of a Santa Cruz slacker. And maybe that’s why, 17, 18 years on, they’ve geared up again.  Let’s go for a ride.

As they worked their way through a long, full, career-restrospective set, I was reminded of those mid-90’s albums I haven’t played in years, and how great songs like “Sweet Thistle Pie” really were.  It was those albums — well, maybe it really was Kerosene Hat, and “EuroTrash Girl”  — that brought out a not-young crowd on a Wednesday night, and it reminded us how in their deliberately non-chic way, in their rebelling against a claim of greater relevance, Cracker took the Southern route to understatement, though their greatness really ought not be denied.

Cracker’s show at the State Theater saw a band revived, and their new album shows them still in creatively fine fettle.   In any objective roster of rock’s most charming — and important — frontmen, David Lowery would be on it: he’s John Fogerty with a subversive sense of humor and a manic wit, Jon Langford’s American cousin.  Let’s hope he keeps both Cracker and CVB cranking it up for years to come.

In “Sunrise In The Land of Milk and Honey,” Cracker Regains Its Swing

Posted in Music with tags , , , on May 9, 2009 by johnbuckley100

When Cracker first was heard, when “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)” first came blaring from early ’90s FM stations, it seemed like David Lowery was embarked on a logical continuum from Camper Van Beethoven to a sound as Southern and traditional as Jack Daniels being poured on a bass boat.  By Kerosene Hat, it was perfected: Johnny Hickman’s guitar was fluid as the James River, and Lowery, in character, was transplanted from his Santa Clara hippie guise to the barefoot boy who’d grown up on Wet Willie and could transition from irony to sincerity as easily as sliding from a bar chord G to E.

Things went South, if you’ll pardon the expression, by the time the Clinton administration reached terminal decline, and besides, by the early part of this decade, Camper Van Beethoven’s rusting engine was re-lubed and cranked up.  By the time Cracker put out Greenland a year or so ago, it seemed over.

Well, it’s perhaps a giveaway that there’s a song on Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey called “Time Machine,” for surely, when you listen to this incredible album, it’s 1992 again.  The band plays with swing, punky power chords, and propulsive drumming.  One could almost imagine Lowery, who on recent CVB tours has seemed like a laid-back suburban dad, strutting on the stage of the old 930 Club, shirtless and youthful.  We did not know that what the world needs now is a new version of Cracker, but we got one, and I dare say it is the best thing they have ever done.

Camper Van Beethoven’s Silver Anniversary, And “New Roman Times” Revisited

Posted in Music with tags , , on January 9, 2009 by johnbuckley100

Last night, Camper Van Beethoven played the State Theater in suburban Washington as part of their 25th Anniversary Tour.  They were great.  David Lowery, the world’s most unassuming rock band frontman (at least with CVB; in Cracker’s glory days he could, on occasion, strut maybe five feet to the right and left) now looks like a suburban Republican dad, or at least like PJ O’Rourke.  Jonathan Segal was in especially fine form on fiddle.  Greg Lisher did his best deadpan Jimmy Page impression.  Victor Krummenacher was, as always, amazing on bass.  And Frank Funaro — was that Frank on the skins when they played the 930 Club in, oh, 2005? — earnestly walloped the drums in rhythmic patterns ranging from gypsy ska to punk from the Steppes: no easy fete.

People tend either to adore CVB or not take them seriously.  And yes, going from a four-chord rock song to some weird take-out on klezmer music makes one, on occasion, wonder if they missed their calling as the world’s greatest hippy bar mitzvah band.  I actually think their over-the-top eclecticism, their virtuosity, the way an ordinary verse-chorus-bridge-verse song can suddenly effloresce into a moment of aching beauty means these guys are serious artists who ought to be reckoned with.  

And I was thinking — thinking as they played “Take The Skinheads Bowling” and “Eye of Fatima” and other alternative hits, high on irony, musical jokes — that it says something that Camper Van Beethoven was the only band in existence (okay, maybe Steve Earle) that genuinely took on the Bush Administration and the Iraq War with anything that approached artistry and depth, without posing or self-congratulations (Dixie Chicks), without just reverting to use of the old ’60s bludgeon- form (Neil Young, and a slew of others.)

New Roman Times came out in 2004, just a year into the War in Iraq.  On examination, it’s not merely the best thing they’ve ever done in their quarter-century existence.  It is one of the few works of art focusing on America in this wretched period we’re about to leave behind, that I believe will stand the test of time.  It’s not a screed.  It’s a deeply moving album with great music and a funny concept/story that, even though it kind of falls apart, is an unheralded work of comic brilliance.    (In 2004, the world was not quite ready for a rock concept album that declared the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy a tragicomedy.)

A young man joins the military (“51-7”), goes off to Iraq (“Might Makes Right”), becomes disillusioned upon his return to Austin (“New Roman Times”), and becomes a stoner participant in a Blackwater-like “security firm” (“The Long Plastic Hallway,” “I Am Talking To This Flower.”)  Along the way, there are detours into telling the Unibomber story (“Militia Song”), and of course it winds up with a classic CVB anthem (“Hippie Chix”), with its by-now famous chorus — available on bumper stickers — of “I would die for hippie chix.”  But years from now, when we think about what a long, awful trip the last eight years have been, while some people will put on a Michael Moore film fest, and no doubt other, more serious folks will read brilliant works of journalism like Dexter Filkins’ “The Forever War” and Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side,” I know I’ll be tapping my feet to CVB, just like I did last night, appreciating these guys for what they are: not just rock music’s brilliant jesters, but a band that is fine, and frickin’ wonderful, and while they’re at it, deep.

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