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Camper Van Beethoven - New Roman Times Print E-mail
Tuesday, 12 October 2004

Camper Van Beethoven

New Roman Times
format: 16-bit Stereo CD
label: Pitch-A-Tent/Vanguard Records
release year: 2004
performance: 8
sound 7
reviewed by: Dan MacIntosh

Image With the release of New Roman Times, Camper Van Beethoven is back and more political than ever. After an extended hiatus, the group that once gave us fun fluff like “Take the Skinheads Bowling” is now taking on the complexities of international wars with its borderless music. Back in the ‘80s, CVB’s singer/songwriter David Lowery was better known for his eclectically wide-ranging music (which incorporated everything from ska to punk to world music), than for any kind of a social conscience. But these “new Roman times” of his appear to require a brand new approach.
This is a concept album (or so one suspects) that touches upon multiple concepts within its framework. For instance, “White Fluffy Clouds” is a love song to a bomber plane, certainly not one of the more oversaturated subject matters in music today. Elsewhere, “I Am Talking to This Flower” explains how one man’s boredom led to his heroin addiction. The Bob Dylan-like folk ballad called “Civil Disobedience” suggests that Lowery is in an antiwar mode here, but he also doesn’t exactly spell out this position in other places. He seems to be pointing his finger without naming names.

Thankfully, Camper Van Beethoven hasn’t completely traded in its musical exploration for pure (and dry) political discourse. Its instrumental reach includes the traditionally Mexican-sounding “Los Tigres Traficantes,” the hoedown country of “Militia Song” and the gypsy vibe of “Might Makes Right.” The group’s ignorance of stylistic boundaries – a laudable trait, by the way – is equally apparent during many of this album’s frequent instrumentals. “Discotheque CVB” is exactly what its title suggests, which is a beautifully retro ‘70s disco slice. “R ‘N R Uzbekistan,” on the other hand, is a fast-paced world music exercise.

In some instances, CVB sounds like a straightforward Americana outfit, with a strong tip of the hat to The Band. This vibe is sensed in the chugging folk of “Hey Brother” and also during the country-rock of “The Long Plastic Hallway.” But if you’re seeking something that is like a chip off the old CVB/Cracker block, the electric guitar strum of “51-7” fits this bill nicely, as does the bouncy beat of “Hippy Chix.” “Hippy Chix,” in fact, is the closest thing to that devil-may-care CVB humor we’ve grown to know and love.

Politics and pop music are getting to know one another again, after a long separation, and New Roman Times is simply filled to the brim with headline-inspired lyrics. While it’s sometimes difficult to completely comprehend David Lowery’s ultimate destination here, he’s nevertheless a fascinating storyteller, so most attentive listeners will just ride along with him willingly. But if foreign policy and campaign talk is starting to get old fast for you, you can always just lose yourself in Camper Van Beethoven’s undeniable musicality instead. Attaining world peace is a lot more complicated than just taking the skinheads bowling, it’s true. And maybe if this troublesome world settles down a little bit, Lowery and friends may once again get back to focusing on tickling our funny bones. But at least for now, these New Roman Times are certainly a-changin’ him.

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