Almost 30 years since Take The Skinheads Bowling alerted the world to the peculiar genius that is David Lowery he’s still going strong and while Cracker have been silent on the recording front recently Camper Van Beethoven have been busy celebrating their home state, California, firstly on last year’s La Costa Perdita and now on El Camino Real. Lowery says of the albums
“Last year Camper Van Beethoven released La Costa Perdida (loosely “the lost coast”) which is a set of songs about Northern California (see Northern California Girls or Come Down the Coast as examples). This year Camper Van Beethoven releases the companion piece to this album “El CaminoReal.” This time the album thematically focuses on Southern California and Baja California. The best way to look at the new album is to draw a contrast between the two. On La Costa Perdida the ocean is calm, benevolent and feminine; on El Camino Real the sea is “filled with darkness, secrets and chemicals.””
Lowery expands on several songs on the album on his blog 300 songs but suffice to say here that El Camino Real reflects the polyglot nature of California and in particular Los Angeles, a huge melting pot of conflicting cultures, needs and aspirations that threatens to blow from time to time. The music reflects this with the Camper Van folk cranking up the guitars as Lowery sings of vets suffering from PTSD, Portuguese fishermen turning to drug running after the fish stocks run out and lavish parties hosted by Columbian drug barons and attended by arrivistes, rock stars and hustlers with bush fires the main entertainment.
The album opens with a classic slice of Lowery in The Ultimate Solution as spiralling guitars and twisted violin spur his vision of an LA on the edge of disaster with the LAPD adopting gang culture. The remainder of the first half of the album is in a similar vein with It Was Like that When We Got Here a muscular romp that ends with a guitar smorgasbord and Camp Pendelton punches in with a meaty bass pulse and duelling guitar while Dockweiler Beach is a mutant secret agent man theme tune. Sugartown (which could be track one, side two if this were vinyl) breaks the mould as the band break out the acoustic instruments but I Live in LA pokes its nose into Cracker territory with its lead guitar snaking away over the claustrophobic cluttered instrumentation. There’s a shimmering instrumental in Goldbase (Lowery’s attempt to write a SoCal Albatross?) before Darken Your Door heads into country rock territory, a typically sardonic take from Lowery on the genre while Grasshopper closes the album in fine fashion as a young gringo gets enmeshed in Mexican shenanigans.
El Camino Real is Camper van Beethoven on top form, well past the college humour of their early days and delivering an album that can be seen as a concept of sorts but which stands up proudly as a great collection of great songs.