Camper Van Beethoven
El Camino Real
2.5 stars out of 5
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.
Still, many of the same accusations leveled at the last disc—its rough edges were sanded off the previously anything-goes aesthetic—apply to this one too. Perhaps due to the back-to-back nature of its unusually fast appearance, the songwriting and general groove is not up to the quirky quality expected from CVB. Some of these performances seem just shy of lackluster, a criticism that could never be applied to their 80’s prime. There is a crispness missing to the plodding “Out Like a Lion” that makes the song feel lumbering and sludgy, even with Jonathan Segal’s ever-present fiddle. Lowery sings like he is bitter and disenchanted, perhaps echoing the lyrics, but minus the sly, eye-twinkling humor that once made CVB so intriguing. The instrumental “Goldbase” also wanders which makes it feel like the filler it probably is.
Existing fans won’t be terribly disappointed since there are just enough high points spread throughout the 11 songs to keep the faith. But even they might agree this is far from the act’s best work and even a few notches below its more creatively stimulating predecessor.