During my freshman year of college, when the discovery of dorm-wide, peer-to-peer music-sharing programs enabled me to realize that a whole world of music existed outside of my Led Zeppelin Greatest Hits collection, one particular album download felt like a particularly golden discovery: Camper Van Beethoven’s Telephone Free Landslide Victory. The album is pure kitsch, seamlessly combining elements of folk, ska, punk, psychedelic and world music that at times feel like an appropriate soundtrack for a game of Tetris or a crowded elevator. Lead singer David Lowery’s (who you may remember from the NPR Intern-Who-Doesn’t-Buy-Music saga) irreverent and idiosyncratic lyrics, though often relegated to the background on an album primarily built around instrumentals and fiddle solos, track the playful sense of irony that pervades the album, imbuing the songs with the same tongue-in-cheek, punk-rock edge of the best Black Flag and Dead Kennedys songs. It was the kind of album that made me feel cool by extension, appealing to the sudden “postmodern” fetish I had developed as it made me feel “cultured”.
That album came out in 1985. Twenty-seven years, one break up, and one marginally successful side project later, Camper Van Beethoven has released their eighth full-length: La Costa Perdida, out now on 429 Records. Listening to Perdida and Telephone is an exercise in contrasts. Perdida’s production shimmers in comparison to the bedroom demo vibe of Telephone. The free-form jamming style of Telephone is abandoned in favor of tightly-orchestrated song structures. David Lowery’s voice is suddenly pushed front and center, with lyrics even going so far as to broach introspective and earnest subjects. I feel like if I were to play Perdida for my dad, he might like it; whereas if I played Telephone, he would most likely think I was on drugs.
The newfound focus on songwriting suits CVB well. The album kicks off with “Come Down to the Coast”, as dreamy lyrics, plaintive mandolin and country guitar riffs form the basis of a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Decembrists album. “Too High for The Love-In” feels like a radio-friendly version of the ironic alterna-folk primarily associated with Camper Van Beethoven, shades of which are recognizable in the music of CVB contemporaries like Clem Snide, Smog and Silver Jews. Familiar, that is, until dueling guitar solos and a delirious comedown punctuate the song, as an eerily cartoonish slide guitar riffs soundtrack Lowery’s repeated requests for anti-venom and a sandwich.
At this point the album takes on a schizophrenic nature, hopping between disparate genres, and often times even within the same track. This experimentation is particularly pronounced in “Some Day Our Love Will Sell Us Out”, as slide guitar, an ascending violin line, and a bit of sitar noodling crescendo into a Paint-It-Black-style psychedelic freak out. The track is immediately followed by “Peaches in the Summertime”, a song which alternates between breakneck ska and laid-back reggae grooves featuring a pair of CVB’s by-now-all-too-familiar fiddle solos. “La Costa Perdida” finds CVB experimenting with a new sound: the traditional Mexican narcocorrido (think Season 3 of Breaking Bad). “They call me flaco blanco” Lowery coos in broken Spanish, assuming the personality of a broken-hearted gringo/drug-trafficker who seems to be perpetually surrounded by dead bodies. “Just don’t forget who is the real chignon.”
Perdida is particularly notable because it stands as a testimony to Camper Van Beethoven’s surprising longevity (particularly given the dearth of ska-punk-alterna-folk bands in the present musical landscape). The band easily could have followed the reunion tour template of bands like Pavement and the Pixies, cashing in on ad nauseam performances of “Pictures of Matchstick Men” and “Take the Skinheads Bowling” for nostalgic hipster dads and Spotify addicts. Instead, Camper Van Beethoven has been a band willing to reinvent itself, all the while still retaining elements of its characteristic genre-bending and sardonic nature. Similar to other indie rock mainstays like Yo La Tengo or Sonic Youth, Camper Van Beethoven has built a dense discography over the years, each album with its own distinct personality and highlights. And unlike Sonic Youth, Camper Van Beethoven at least seems willing to stay together for the kids.
Tim Myers is a frequent contributor to Frontier Psychiatrist. He has yet to bowl with a skinhead.