Release Date: January 22, 2013
Label: 429 Records
Camper Van Beethoven have always been a glorious mess. From their early- ’80s beginnings in the Northern California hippie haven of Santa Cruz, the band cultivated a sort of anti-aesthetic: Anything goes. On early albums like Telephone Free Landslide Victory and II & III, wiseass ska-pop, politically charged psychedelic ragas, and Eastern European gypsy-folk instrumentals sit cheek-by-jowl with earnest country ballads and riff-heavy ’70s hard rock. A major-label deal at decade’s end upped the production values but otherwise (thankfully) didn’t do much to iron out the creative wrinkles.
Since the band reconstituted itself more than a decade ago, following a ’90s-long break, their output has been refreshingly puzzling: 2002’s track-for-track but hardly faithful remake of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk begat 2004’s New Roman Times, a sprawling, darkly comic concept album about an anti-government insurrectionist. Their catalog freely mixes sardonic in-jokes, biting satire, and desperate melancholy; it’s just rarely clear which is which.
As such, La Costa Perdida is perhaps the least “Camper Van Beethoven” album that Camper Van Beethoven have ever released. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, but it’s remarkably, uncharacteristically streamlined: Ten songs, 43 minutes, and not much in the way of the oddball digressions that define the band. Opener “Come Down the Coast,” a lovely, swaying, hard-to-dislike ballad that pairs frontman David Lowery’s gently weathered vocals with guitar lines that dance around each other without missing a step, sets the tone for an album that doubles as a love letter to the band’s beach-town roots. “Too High for the Love-In” sports an absurdist lyrical slant (“Bring to me the anti-venom and make me a sandwich”) and a dramatic second-half tempo change, but at heart it’s pretty conventional California psychedelic rock. Ditto for “Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out,” which nods to the White Album and the Grateful Dead’s more ponderous moments. “You’ve Got to Roll” is a fiery blues-rock stomp and “Peaches in the Summertime” a breathless cow-punk sprint. Pretty unsurprising stuff.
Perhaps the greatest indictment of La Costa Perdita is that it could pass easily for the product of Lowery’s other band, the ’90s-ascendant Cracker, which often replaced CVB’s bizarro wit and willful eclecticism with earnest, traditional alt-country or classic rock. The title track, a warm, sly country shuffle, feels particular Cracker-ish, as does the elegiac “Northern California Girls,” which in tempo and subject matter can’t help but recall Cracker’s kinda-hit “Eurotrash Girl,” albeit minus the sarcastic smirk.
All in all, this is a well-written, smartly paced, tightly played, thematically cohesive, musically tidy piece of work. It’s just that quite a lot of Camper fans probably never considered those qualities to be particularly appealing virtues.