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Camper Van Beethoven
New Roman Times

Fifteen years after disbanding, Camper Van Beethoven — those arch-ironists of the late '80s — are back with a new album, New Roman Times. And if you think this is just another traditional, bloated reunion record, well… you don't know Camper Van Beethoven.

Since their first album, 1985's Telephone Free Landslide Victory, through 1989's Key Lime Pie, the band's final, and most commercially successful, album, Camper Van Beethoven — David Lowery (vocals, guitar), Victor Krummenacher (bass, vocals), Greg Lisher (guitar), Jonathan Segel (violin, guitar, keyboards), Chris Pedersen (drums), and, from time to time, David Immerglück (guitar, backing vocals, pedal steel, mandolin) — cultivated a unique sound which drew from rock, country, folk, ska, surf, pop, and world music. Combining this eclectic mix with lyrics that were sometimes goofy, sometimes profound, but always heavily laced with irony and sarcasm, the group became an underground favorite whose reputation has continued to grow since they called it quits in 1990.

Now, after regrouping in 2000 and touring ever since, Camper return to form with New Roman Times. Actually, that isn't quite correct. While the dizzying mix of musical styles and absurdist lyrics is still there, Camper are a much more skilled, mature band. The group sounds great, more muscular and in control than in the past, especially on the pseudo-stadium rock of "White Fluffy Clouds" — in which soldiers sing the praises of their weapons ("My baby's an M4 Carbine/ Good for close combat/ Gets you home alive") — and the infectious dance anthem "Disqotheque CVB." "R 'n R Uzbekistan," the title alone is almost worth the price of the album, is typical Camper, evoking Eastern European folk music through Segel's violin and Lowery's tight rhythm guitar.

There's another reason why this album isn't exactly a return to form for Camper Van Beethoven. You see, New Roman Times is a political rock opera of sorts, quite a departure for a group that favors quick musical snapshots over extended narratives. The story, told in a sideways, irony-filled manner, involves an America split into rival states, such as the Fundamentalist Christian Republic of Texas and the Republic of California. The main character is a young man from Texas who joins an elite army unit ("51-7"), is wounded and becomes disillusioned with the war ("New Roman Times" and "Might Makes Right"), takes solace in drugs ("The Poppies of Balmorhea"), and eventually joins an underground resistance movement ("Hippy Chix").

If it all seems rather vague, it is. There are certainly some parallels between the story and the numerous cultural and political divisions in America today, but Camper only hints, in the most obscure fashion, at these. What the concept does allow is a number of narrative voices to be heard, a complement to the diverse musical styles present on the album. We hear from the young soldier himself in "Might Makes Right" (perhaps the album's most overt political statement: "Might makes right/ Might makes right/ They say that God is on our side/ I don't believe them"), a retired intelligence officer in the lazy, country-flavored "That Gum You Like Is Back in Style," a mail-bomber in the jaunty hoedown of "Militia Song," and a paranoid homeless man in "Civil Disobedience." The fringe elements of society are what interest Camper the most, and they all get a chance to be heard here.

As could be expected in a project of this nature, the album does falter in spots. Three songs — "Come Out," "Los Tigres Trafficantes," and "I Hate This Part of Texas" — are the weakest tracks on the album, consisting of repetitive lyrics and Lowery's fractured Spanish. But there is never a moment when the story upstages the music; most of the songs succeed on their own. In fact, if you didn't know anything about this album, and didn't read the one-sentence synopses of the songs in the booklet, you'd be hard pressed to acknowledge that there even is a concept linking all the songs. And while that might seem a failure in a rock opera, it actually works to the advantage of New Roman Times. What stands out is Camper's musical adventurousness, and the remarkable skill with which they blend so many musical styles. And this, in the end, is really what Camper Van Beethoven are all about.

by Lee Templeton

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