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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Camper Van Beethoven: La Costa Perdida


1) Come Down The Coast; 2) Too High For The Love-In; 3) You Got To Roll; 4) Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out; 5) Peaches In The Summertime; 6) Northern California Girls; 7) Summer Days; 8) La Costa Perdida; 9) Aged In Wood; 10) A Love For All Time.

If you like your Camper Van Beethoven slow, serious, nostalgic, melancholic, and soulful, this one's for you. Now that the band members are in their fifties, chances of them reigniting the old hooligan spirit are fairly low — but it is almost as if they are consciously accelerating the matura­tion-aging process. Like New Roman Times, La Costa Perdida is another conceptual suite, but this time, it has nothing whatsoever to do with politics: most of the record reads like a symbolic love letter to their native California, soaked in nostalgia for the old days — you know, when la costa was not yet quite perdida, so to speak. The band members themselves stated that their chief influence for the record was Holland by The Beach Boys, an album whose serene, naturalistic spirit does have something in common with what they are trying to do here. Whether they suc­ceed in this is a different matter: most of the critics who still remembered CvB from the old days resorted to comparisons with Key Lime Pie, the most serious, thoughtful, and potentially boring release that they had in those old days. And these comparisons weren't always friendly.

To be perfectly honest, I like the idea and respect the attempt, but the album does bore me. It is really slow-moving (except for ʽPeaches In The Summertimeʼ, played at such a ridiculously frantic tempo that it sounds like they are seriously trying to compensate with just this one track for all the slowness around), really monotonous (introspective, brooding nostalgia permeates all the vocal and instrumental parts), and not too big on catchy hooks. Throw in the fact that Lowery is quite far from the most hypnotic performer when it comes to wearing your intellectual heart on your college suit sleeve, and what you get is something that works much better in theory than on practice — much like Key Lime Pie.

It is easy to illustrate on the example of the very first track, the country-rock waltz ʽCome Down The Coastʼ. Lisher's lead lines are colorful and sweet, Lowery's sentimental lyrics are delivered sincerely and friendly, but nothing ever rises above «adequate» — and when they get to the repetitive "come down and see me sometime" chorus, it quickly becomes too predictable and boring: how many times can you chant "[Insert four-syllable-long girl name here], come down and see me sometime" before you begin to sound like an obsessed whiner? And, needless to say, the backing harmonies are quite a far cry from the Beach Boys. Word-wise, Lowery may be getting his point across (all things may come and go, but girls and the sea shore will be here for ever), but atmosphere-wise, the song does not make much of an impression.

The same judgement, I guess, gets extrapolated over everything else here. ʽToo High For The Love-Inʼ does have a lovely set of female vocals reminiscent of certain strands of lush Europop from the Sixties, and a few pretty guitar flourishes to boot, but still overstays its welcome. The psycho-blues anthem ʽSomeday Our Love Will Sell Us Outʼ rides the same stiff groove for five minutes, briefly plunging it into pools of chaos during the coda, but its potentially mesmerizing mix of slide guitars, violins, and sitars is really so simplistic and repetitive that no true magic comes out of it. And the album's alleged centerpiece, ʽNorthern California Girlsʼ, takes on ʽHey Judeʼ-ian proportions, slipping into an anthemic coda whose two most notable features are: a distorted psychedelic lead guitar part, sounding exactly like a million distorted psychedelic solos before it, and a choral chant of "Northern Califor-nia girls, Northern Califor-nia girls" by a pack of hypnotized zombies who have long ago forgotten the meaning of that noun phrase but have been cursed to go on chanting it forever because they do not deserve any better. At least, you know, the da-da-da part on ʽHey Judeʼ was delivered with some genuine excitement.

In short, I am touched by Lowery and Co.'s feelings for their homeland, and I'm pretty sure the record will have a special appeal for all those who also happened to grow up between Stinson Beach and Arcata in the Sixties and Seventies (and maybe even later), seagulls included. But in terms of a more universal appeal, this is no Holland, and there's way too much subordination of the music to the concept. "We're old tigers / Sleeping in the sun / Dreaming of the hunt", Lowery sings on ʽSummer Daysʼ, and I guess this is really what the whole thing is about. Except that some old tigers still manage to have more vivid dreams than others, and this particular batch of old tigers sounds like it at least needs a bit more vitamins to hold your attention.


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  2. Having biked the West Coast of the U.S. extensively, I can confirm that trying to do musical justice to the stretch "between Stinson Beach and Arcata" is bound to get any artist in trouble.