October 22, 2004
There’s one rock ‘n’ roll truism that generally holds true. “Reunion” albums -- works by bands that had broken up years ago -- generally tend to disappoint.
However, a couple of new CDs by bands rooted in the world of 1980s indie rock are exceptions to that rule. Like Mission of Burma’s sturdy OnOffOn released earlier this year, Camper Van Beethoven’s New Roman Times and American Music Club’s Love Songs For Patriots are surprisingly good.
Not only are they reunion albums that don’t suck, but they sound like natural additions to each band’s discography. And there’s not much nostalgic about either effort. Both are psychologically in tune with the here and now. These are the records that CVB and AMC would have released in 2004 even if they hadn’t broken up 10 or 15 years ago.
First the Camper album..
This California band -- probably best known for the goofball anthem “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” -- broke up in 1989, shortly after releasing Key Lime Pie.
Since then, singer David Lowery enjoyed some success with his band Cracker, while other CVBers splintered off into less successful ensembles such as The Monks of Doom.
The new album features the original CVB lineup, including violinist Jonathan Segal, whose crazed fiddling stands out here. Like their best work, the music on New Roman Times has audible folk/country roots, a sense of adventure that leads to forays into Mexican music, disco, avant garde noise rock, a little proto-disco and often overtones of Baltic or gypsy sounds (thank you Mr. Segal), with a viewpoint that veers from hipster wise-guy to earnest working man.
New Roman Times is nothing short of a rock opera. Playing off the very real current culture-war divisions or Red State/Blue State America, the songs tell a story of a new civil war in this country. The once united states have disintegrated into feudal fiefdoms (“the Republic of California”) and cold corporations (TexSecurIntellicorp) warring with one another.
The songs tell the story of a disillusioned, drug-addicted ex-soldier who breaks with his corporate masters to rejoin a rebel California militia to fight for truth, justice and hippie chicks.
But despite the backdrop of this Mad Max future, much of the lyrics are thinly-disguised acidic commentaries on today’s news and politics.
This is especially true of the song “Might Makes Right,” a reggae/tango in which the protagonist soldier begins to have doubts about the war he’s fighting.
“They want us from their villages/They want us from their towns/Who can really blame them?/Shit blows up when we’re around/ We fly above their house with our Huey double props/We scare the crap out of their kids/their mothers/and their flocks.”
And on the home front, there’s “Civil Disobedience,” a song of Patriot Act-inspired paranoia in which John Ashcroft probably deserves co-writing credits.
The album ends on a harsh note. The song “Hey Brother,” in which a suicide bomber prepares for his big bang. It’s not clear whether this is the protagonist or some nameless enemy. But with the bittersweet sweet gospel-influenced melody with a piercing steel guitar and lyrics such as “When we smite them with our swords/In the name of our just lord/We do bring glory to his name,” you know the ending isn’t a happy one.
But Camper fans should be happy about New Roman Times.
The same can be said about the new American Music Club album.
AMC never even reached Camper Van Beethoven’s modest level of fame. Even so, the group made some of the most striking music of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The band broke up in 1994 after their second major-label album San Francisco.
Singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel, whose boozy, usually bleak, but incisive emotional rages were always the core of the Music Club's sound, went on to produce a steady stream of solo albums.
However, Love Songs For Patriots is a perfect illustration of what Eitzel’s solo work lacked. His bandmates perfectly color the open wounds of Eitzel’s lyrics. With the band behind him, each bruise is a rainbow. An AMC realizes this from the first cut, “Ladies & Gentlemen” where a rumbling guitar crashes against a pounding piano and crashing drum in the first song,
Sometimes the accompaniment is pretty, like the gentle acoustic folky guitar-based sound of “Myopic Books” and “Song of the Rats Laving the Sinking Ship.” Sometimes they create what sounds like an atonal psychological thunderstorm like the last four minutes or so of the closing 7-minute tune “The Devil Needs You.” And some songs, like “Love Is,” have elements of aural beauty as well as dissonance.
And to be sure, Eitzel is still writing some powerful lyrics. The stand-out here is “Patriot’s Heart,” which has little to do with poliitcs, at least as most of us know it. It’s the story of a male stripper in a gay club.
At one point Eitzel shouts, like the dancer screaming at a patron: “Aw come on grandpa, remind me of what we’re celebrating/That your heart finally dried up?/Or it finally stopped working?” Drummer Tim Moody provides a harsh, near martial-beat while new member Vudi
Not all is darkness here. The group sneaks in some subtle humor. In “Myopic Books,” Eitzel longs for a bookstore where they play Dinosaur Jr. and “the people who work there would be super skinny/and super unfriendly/That would make me happy.”
As is the case with their best material, American Music Club makes depression sound almost attractive.
Hear this stuff on the radio!: Hear 30 minutes of Camper Van Beethoven and 30 minutes of American Music Club and Mark Eitzel Sunday night on Terrell’s Sound World on KSFR, 90.7 FM (streaming live on www.ksfr.org) CVB will start just after 10:30 p.m. MDT, while AMC will begin right after the 11th hour.