Camper Van Beethoven: El Camino Real- Camper Van Beethoven‘s bassist Victor Krummenacher previously told Pop Matters “Young Camper is very different from old Camper,” and he’s certainly right. Mixing elements from styles ranging from pop to alternative country to ska, Camper has perpetually played with the boundaries between genres. Now, this year’s El Camino Real even differs from its thematically similar sister album, last year’s La Costa Perdida. Both reflect on the band’s home of California yet while La Costa Perdida celebrated the Northern part with a relatively upbeat, relaxed sound, El Camino Real focuses on the Southern part of the state with a significantly darker tone and tighter arrangements. Lead singer David Lowery’s recollections of shifting states between admiration and disillusionment for his old stomping grounds illustrate even further that Camper is a band looking at time through a looking glass, making their aesthetic alterations between albums understandable. As the men of Camper look back on the past, it’s only normal that their perspectives on events and places would change and this tonally and lyrically darker release marks another successful one for the band.
A sample of a Japanese airline announcement introduces the album’s opener ‘The Ultimate Solution’ before Jonathan Segel’s violin cascades alongside Jonathan Lisher’s slide guitar. Singing of “violins and violence”, Lowery’s mannered and recently choice style of vocals recalls a Blur-era Damon Albarn and which can also be heard on the mischievous sounding ‘It Was Like That When We Got Here’. While violin weighs down a springing bass, Lowery sings in an unattached tone screaming of messiness and longing like a petulant child. Camper has previously paired disparate lyrics and music and this up-tempo track is another strong example of it for the group.
Though the more upbeat songs in the beginning of the album are definitely worth a listen, Camper seems most comfortable on more melancholy tracks like the dark dance number ‘Camp Pendleton’, where a downtrodden guitar moves slowly with sharp bass plucks and Michael Urbano’s steady drum rhythm. Here, the lamenting lyrics match the gloomier sound of Lowery’s calmed down vocals before a catchy lo-fi guitar introduces the ominous yet danceable chorus repeatedly chanting “Pump up the violence/Bring the lights on down.” And on the eeriest track ‘Out like a Lion’ where a baritone Lowery’s slow spoken lyrics about a baby born into it’s dead mother’s blood roll along soft and heavy drum thumps. The song is littered with Segel’s fiddle haunting the background and accents of bluesy guitar fluctuating in and out but the screaming battle between the two at the end of the track make this a praise-worthy piece of production on the album.
Faster songs on the album are equally satisfying like ‘Dockweiler Beach’ whose punk beat shadows over rushing instrumentals and Lowery’s serial-killer style vocals and when he stutters on lines like “they are never c-coming back” you almost shiver to the rhythm of the spookily low bass set against the ska-paced drums. ‘I Live in L.A.’ similarly pumps up the energy and although Lowery sings, or more appropriately yells, roughly out of range, the bluesy guitar, faint harmonica, and catchy chorus about the good-time that is L.A. nightlife save the song from its less impressive vocals.
Camper plays with its folk side on the ballad ‘Sugartown’ where Segel’s violin slow dances with the country twang of Lisher’s guitar but Lowery’s vocals sound far too guttural set against the smooth romanticism of the song. Also disappointing on the countrified ‘Darken Your Door’, Lowery’s sometimes rewarding stoicism turns into a uncaring drawl and although the song’s high and low pitched strings make one feel like they’re on a gondola in Louisiana, a lack of any climax makes this a forgettable moment on El Camino Real. The album’s end ‘Grasshopper’ keeps up the pleasantries with a slow rolling beat alongside Lowery’s most connected sounding vocals. The stream of harmony make this track a serene ending to a pretty frantic album. On El Camino Real, Camper plays with all (or most) of its favorite toys: punk, rock, alt-country, folk, and instrumental. And although Lowery may need to find a balance between his punky-dissaffectedness and a sense of connection with the listener in his vocals, the album is still a quality representation of the band’s technical and creative abilities and any longtime Camper fans should find it a good listen…7/10