Release Date: Jun 3, 2014
Record label: 429 Recordings
In a recent interview I had with Camper Van Beethoven bassist Victor Krummenacher, he informed me that there were enough songs left over from the La Costa Perdida sessions to start a whole other album. Of course, he couldn’t offer many details beyond that. “It seems to me if we can pull off going into the studio again, then we will. I don’t know when that is, you know, nothing’s written in stone,” he admitted.
Should Sufjan Stevens ever re-embark upon his ambitious album-for-each-state project, he could do far worse than outsource California to Redlands’ own Camper Van Beethoven. Between last year’s welcome, northern-flavored return, La Costa Perdida, and its new southern companion, El Camino Real, Camper have Cali covered. Granted, an early line like “I was on a new game show/Dancing with the Rampart Squad/ Everyone had gang tattoos/ And designer luggage” quickly reminds listeners that frontman David Lowery isn’t your typical tour guide.
David Lowery and Victor Krummenacher of Camper Van Beethoven first started making music together in the Southern California city of Redlands, but the band really came together in Santa Cruz, in the northern part of the Golden State, and it's not hard to get a sense of where the group's greater loyalties lie by comparing their two concept albums about life in California, 2013's La Costa Perdida and 2014's El Camino Real. While La Costa Perdida was a relatively loose and upbeat celebration of Northern California, El Camino Real focuses on the southern part of the state, and the tone and mood are significantly different; Michael Urbano's drumming here is precise but stiff, with a noted absence of swing, and the playful report of Jonathan Segel's fiddle is usually pushed to the back of the mix, while Lowery's vocals sound decidedly weary when they ought to feel lively on numbers like "Classy Dames and Able Gents" and "It Was Like That When We Got Here. " The best numbers on El Camino Real are generally the most somber, especially the bitter lament of "Sugartown," the drifter's narrative of "Grasshopper," and the country-styled tale of broken hearts and bad luck "Darken Your Door.
The easy going northern California vibe that the revived Camper Van Beethoven explored on last year’s La Costa Perdida is replaced with a darker examination of the lower half of the state for that album’s surprisingly quick follow-up. But while the lyrics aren’t as flowery this time, and the mood considerably less upbeat, the music contains CVB’s mix of country, folk, rock and gypsy soul. Frontman David Lowery’s snarky voice remains the band’s most obvious asset and his sardonic style along with lyrics that are either disarmingly direct (“Sugartown”) or hopelessly obtuse (nearly everything else) makes the band’s approach uniquely idiosyncratic.
Camper Van Beethoven albums are, somewhat fittingly, like buses. You wait nine years for one and then two come along in close succession. Last year’s La Costa Perdida celebrated northern California, while El Camino Real continues the journey south, from LA to Baja. The band sound comfortable, muscled, confident – the musical embodiment of Southern California, in fact.