You may best know Camper Van Beethoven via their 1985 song “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” a minor hit recently revisited in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine. After a fifteen year dry spell the band has reunited and reclaimed their status as political satirists. New Roman Times is something of a Rock-umentary, telling the story of a young Texan man becoming a soldier, fighting a war, and returning to America a tainted, wounded and resentful drug addict. In the end the young man joins an elite terrorist group and we are led to believe that he may be on his way to a suicide bombing.
While New Roman Times is not a direct stab at the current state of affairs, the resemblance of its illusory sci-fi U.S.A. and the real thing are uncanny. As always the band has a knack for throwing in the occasional punch line at the most opportune moments, relaxing their listeners from getting too worked up. Each of the musicians that make up CVB have worked on side projects over the years, perhaps the most famous would be front man David Lowery’s further effort Cracker. Also CVB has gone through many different lineups since they began making records back in 1985, but the original lineup returns for New Roman Times. The album title is a prime example of the bands askew strategy: besides being a play on words of the popular computer font it’s also quite an account of the present state of imperialism.
Camper Van Beethoven has always had a very eclectic sound, and while on the one hand creatively this album seems to pick up right where Key Lime Pie left off, on the other hand a maturity of both the musicians and technology is apparent. New Roman Times has a sci-fi sound reminiscent of early Pink Floyd, while staying true to its punk roots, power harmony vocals and the occasional hoedown. It is obvious that the band couldn’t stick to being serious for too long and the refreshingly old school absurdity will surely please anyone who has waited fifteen years to hear from these guys.
It is hard to listen to this album without envisioning a partnering stage or screen performance. Set up with an instrumental prelude, and followed by scattered narrative instrumental tracks the album lets the music speak for itself. As if that weren’t enough the story is outlined in the accompanying booklet. This album has rock-opera written all over it! One can almost see the lights and the alternate reality U.S.A. as lead singer David Lowery enlightens us on how “soldiers sing praise to their weapons.” Lowery mentioned in an interview that he actually visited military chat rooms to learn about popular weapons among militia and nourished his creative vision.
Whether you are a seasoned CVB fan with old tapes still in your possession, or you just heard about this album through some of your geeky friends, you’ll truly be affected by the sustained originality of the band. With diverse instrumental sounds and irony-freckled lyrics Camper Van Beethoven has made again, an assorted collection of punk rock arrangements with a classic nerd rock feel in New Roman Times. Nina Simone once sang a song she called “…a show tune that the show hadn’t been written for yet.” Perhaps it was unconscious, but I think that is precisely what Camper Van Beethoven has done here.
Camper Van Beethoven- Key Lime Pie
Camper Van Beethoven- Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart
The Decemberists- The Tain