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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Camper Van Beethoven: El Camino Real


1) The Ultimate Solution; 2) It Was Like That When We Got Here; 3) Classy Dames And Able Gents; 4) Camp Pendleton; 5) Dockweiler Beach; 6) Sugartown; 7) I Live In L. A.; 8) Out Like A Lion; 9) Goldbase; 10) Darken Your Door; 11) Grasshopper.

Announced as a quick thematic follow-up to La Costa Perdida, this time focused on Southern rather than Northern California, El Camino Real is in some superficial ways similar to its pre­decessor — the basic theme, the Spanish title, the cover art — but in other ways quite different: shorter, tighter, faster, poppier, sprightlier, and, on the whole, far more efficient. Apparently, churning out rootsy pop hooks is much easier for the band at this time than weaving atmospheric soundscapes of longing and yearning. Or maybe it's just that Southern California happens to ignite and inspire them far more than Northern California, for whatever reason.

In any case, El Camino Real is simply a very good pop album — perhaps the most straightfor­ward pop album they ever made, with almost every song featuring an assortment of vocal and / or instrumental hooks that matter much, much more than the words, whether those words be nos­talgic, traditional, satirical, or surrealist. Even a few songs done strictly in the generic country-western style, like ʽDarken Your Doorʼ, are funny, upbeat, and catchy; and on the whole, there's plenty of diversity, with some tracks having a punky edge, some having a blues-rock one, and some just giving you a tasty slice of the good old power-pop — like ʽCamp Pendletonʼ with a chorus line that was born to be whistled over and over, even as the song hits you with an odd case of «dark-cheerful ironic nostalgia», or the album-opening ʽUltimate Solutionʼ, shifting between muscular, stomping garage-rock riffs and lighter, violin-driven verses.

If there's a problem here, it is precisely inverse to the problem of La Costa Perdida — this time, the songs are so much pop fun, you never really get to feel any concept behind them. Perhaps the natives of South California will inadvertently have their ears glued to the lyrics, but anybody else will simply have to enjoy the music. Here's ʽDockweiler Beachʼ, kinda sounding like what would have happened if The Smiths decided to sound like The Ramones, and throw in a bit of a musical reference to the Batman theme along the way. There's ʽI Live In L. A.ʼ, kinda sounding like what would have happened if The Pogues decided to sound like The Eagles, and throw in a bit of Dylanesque harmonica to boot. There's ʽIt Was Like That When We Got Hereʼ, one minute put­ting its trust into an anthemic chorus and the next minute staking it all on a nagging blues-rock riff in the old Alvin Lee tradition. It's fun!

By the time they reach the slow, languid, folksy coda of ʽGrasshopperʼ, you might realize that each and every song has something to offer — yes, the hard-rocking songs are too deeply steeped in irony to truly kick ass, and the soft songs aren't distinctive or soulful enough to guarantee an unforgettable experience, but there's an intelligent and/or a kind-hearted sentiment in each track, a hook or two in almost each track, and, of course, the usual CvB attention to colorful detalization. I'm not sure I could or even would like to spend a lot of time describing these details, so just take my word for it: this is a really, really fun record, with a classy attitude behind it. This time, these guys aren't even trying to make something unpredictable: they just went ahead and wrote and recorded some good music for you, instead of, say, doing some ska covers of Frank Sinatra or trying to record a death metal album with nothing but cellos and violins. Bottomline: if it's any indication, I'm definitely choosing Southern over Northern California. Thumbs up.


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  2. CVB had some of the most solid pop instincts of any band of their generation and/or scene, but they always seemed oddly hesitant to record a straightforward pop record. Perceiving, and not unreasonably, that they had a multitude of talents beyond the pop song format, they always supplemented their pop tunes with instrumental ska, alt-country stylings, occasionally experimental conceptual suites, atmospheric soundscapes, and much else besides. El Camino Real kind of provides a glimpse of what the band would have been like if they just stuck with the "Take the Skinheads Bowling" idiom. And though it may be heresy to some CVB fans, I think this constitutes some of the best power pop (and folk and country and much else besides) of recent vintage. I don't think the band had ever done an album this immediately likeable and fun, and it's neck and neck with Key Lime Pie as my favorite release of theirs.