Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Camper Van Beethoven album reviews

Camper Van Beethoven fans have been treated to plenty of new and archival releases lately.

In early 2013, the alt-rock band re-emerged after a nine-year recording hiatus with La Costa Perdida.

The reunion album shrewdly mixed ska, rock, norteƱo, psychedelia, and Middle Eastern music elements together and lyrically explored themes related to California’s North Coast. Initial songwriting sessions were prolific, spawning enough strong contenders for that effort plus a follow-up.

Now an equally absorbing El Camino Real, which is aimed at SoCal and Baja, has arrived via 429/Savoy Label Group. Acerbic front man David Lowery has said of Perdida, “the ocean is calm, benevolent and feminine” and on Real, the sea is “filled with darkness, secrets and chemicals.”

Opening track “The Ultimate Solution” is a trademark CVB stomper with prominent poppy backing vocals and searing violin work from Jonathan Segel. Lowery sings about waiting for the world to end and reference’s Los Angeles’ Rampart Division police department scandal, Korean girls and the city's intersection of Pico & Sepulveda.

A 1980s party in the foothills of Pasadena interrupted by a wildfire inspired “It Was Like That When We Got Here,” featuring a laconic Lowery delivery and memorable recurring guitar line.

His reverb-drenched vocals on “Camp Pendleton” are paired with a seething musical undertow. The ominous and fast-paced “Dockweiler Beach” finds a stuttering Lowery singing “I am waiting in the water at El Segundo” and later describes LAX planes that “take off for Tokyo/they’re never coming back.”

The band has added a fine beer-hoisting sing along to its cannon with the slinky, acoustic guitar-based “I Live in LA,” revisiting the hostess of said Pasadena party. Here, Lowery yelps hilarious lyrics concerning “black SUVs in the drive/tinted windows and guards/cowboy boots and shaves heads/Italian heels and tattooed necks.”

Following airy instrumental “Goldbase” is the folkish standout “Darken Your Door,” bolstered by great mandolin and slide guitar. Memories of good and bad times are the crux of this geographical track concerning a long term relationship at a crossroads. The singer waxes lyrical about living “with an ocean view and an Encinitas record shop,” “in Moreno Valley working on the graveyard shift” and “easy times in Baja and Loreto, swimming in the Sea of Cortez.”

Another highlight, the slow and dreamy “Grasshopper” is a captivating closer populated by gringos, senoritas and federales and located “400 miles down the Mexican coast/$200 from being flat broke.” Later, Lowery sings calmly about “drinking Mescal when the sun goes down.”

While longtime enthusiasts might miss the quirkiness of the group’s initial releases, El Camino Real is a solid addition to the CVB catalog. Bonus points go to Michael Wertz for the CD booklet’s vibrant artwork, loosely tied to the previous album [].

Grade: B+

A few months ago, one of my favorite labels, Omnivore Recordings, put out excellent reissues of this Eighties college rock radio fave’s 1988 major label debut Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (the fourth overall studio effort) and 1989’s Key Lime Pie.

The former features the original Dennis Herring-produced 14 songs and is highlighted by the single “Eye of Fatima, Part 1,” elegant sweep of “‘One of These Days,” frenzied jig “Turquoise Jewelry” (with its classic line “take off that jumpsuit/you look like Grace Slick”), endearingly odd “She Divines Water,” sprightly organ-drenched “Never Go Back” and dramatic “Tania.”

Among the 11 bonus tracks are the vigorous Buzzcocks cover “Harmony in My Head” and spacey Herb Alpert instrumental “Wade In the Water.” Several live selections comprising CVB’s warped takes on the Damned (“Smash It Up”), Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”), The Stranglers (“Hanging Around”) and more (their own whimsical “Day That Lassie Went to the Moon”) were taken from a 1988 gig at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Conn.

Herring returned to the fold for the more commercially successful Key Lime Pie, containing the rousing, modern rock chart topping Status Quo remake “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” The band was firing on all cylinders, thanks to such standouts as the wistful “Sweethearts,” an eerie “(I Was Born In A) Laundromat,” contemplative ballad “All Her Favorite Fruit,” elegant “Flowers” and “When I Win the Lottery.”

Bonus material comprises four previously unreleased tracks from a 1989 concert at LA’s Universal Amphitheatre – notably trademark tune “Take The Skinheads Bowling” – a pair of previously unreleased live ones from the Soho Natural Sessions and more.

Each CD reissue has a booklet with an informative essay by Jill Stauffer, rare photos and detailed liner notes. Highly recommended for longtime fans.

Grade (both): A

Camper Van Beethoven plays 8 p.m. June 4 at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach. Tickets are $20 and available at

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