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Album Review: Camper Van Beethoven – El Camino Real

2 min read

Eccentric California band Camper Van Beethoven have already followed up 2013’s La Costa Perdida with a Southern Californian sequel in El Camino Real, its 9th studio album.

camper van beethoven - el camino realThis release is a far cry from popular, chirpier Californian songs. Instead, the songs are more sarcastic and dry than emotional (whether that feeling is of hilarity or sadness), like the moment before the hangover when memories of mischief and throwing up are still a bit raw. It is no surprise that the band was able to cover Fleetwood Mac’s post-blockbuster Tusk album and capture the bizarre spirit of the original.

It is also little wonder that David Lowery’s vocals sound resigned, especially on the oriental-sounding opener The Ultimate Solution. Despite a string quartet supporting this catchy tune, the frontman gives off the impression that he could not care any less. This sensation borders on psychosis on I Live in L.A., as Lowery’s croaky delivery makes the seemingly innocent line ‘I live in L.A., come and see me one day’ sound like a deranged, drug-induced call for help. Nevertheless, Lowery’s vocal performance is one effective method of convincing listeners that California is not all sunny and happy.

The words themselves also mark the change in tone from La Costa Perdida. It Was Like That When We Got Here and Camp Pendleton may have the folkish skiffle of the works of The Byrds and Tom Petty, resulting in bouncy, lo-fi party rock. However, the slinky, crunchy guitars that twang and lilt nicely are a strange contrast to the lyrics reeking of desperation (‘why can’t we be more than friends?’) and almost robotic drums. Out Like a Lion is a freaky trip to the macabre, as fiddles and guitars battle it out over Lowery’s recalls how he cradled his son in his ‘mother’s blood’. The rapid punk beat of Dockweiler Beach may rush with the urgency of Friday on My Mind, but its repetitive but pop-worthy hook about waiting ‘10000 years’ to ‘eternity’ really hammers down the southern Californian vibe.

Sugartown and Grasshopper are quality folk-rock ballads. The latter closes the album pleasantly with dreary yet comedic depictions of life (‘drinking mascara when the sun goes down’) and the subsequent desperate pleas for divine intervention (‘Oh lord…I’ll be a good boy for the rest of my days’).

Camper Van Beethoven may have taken its quirky alternative rock to darker places on El Camino Real. Fortunately, the band manages to not take things too seriously and remain laidback, making its songs far more digestible to the listener.