A couple of years ago, on the occasion of his belated solo debut, David Lowery tried to explain to me the differences between his two legacy bands: "Camper Van Beethoven has a pretty identifiable song that works for them. Cracker, a little less so. Cracker is so much my personality and Johnny [Hickman]'s, what I write we can do some version of. Camper is a particular beast."
Like most Camper Van Beethoven albums since the quintet's debut, 1985's "Telephone Free Landslide Victory" (containing the Dr. Demento staple "Take the Skinheads Bowling"), including the album made after the band reunited just more than a decade ago, 2004's "New Roman Times," the new "La Costa Perdida" ambles and rambles through all kinds of songs.
There's the light, bouncy, tongue-in-cheek country of the title track. There's the basic blues-rock of "You Got to Roll," neatly twisted by Camper's just-off-kilter dueling guitars. There's Americana, Mexican music, ska, fiddles both mournful and manic. "Northern California Girls" is a slow, loping folk ballad with more than a few cooing harmonies winking at the antecedent of the song title's pun.
Two things make an album a distinctly Camper project. First, the multi-ethnic sources of the instrumentation, as well as the comfortably cavalier way that music is both performed and combined. "Peaches in the Summertime" is the album's requisite ska offering, but of course it's also a new version of "Shady Grove," an 18th-century folk song. Second, the inextricable element of psychedelia. Cracker kicked sh-- through the '90s in the manner of a bent honky-tonker, but Camper is where Lowery lets a uniquely skewed, bong-tastic surrealism hang out. In "Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out," the guitars slide up and down while Lowery imagines wild and rotten futures. Same for "Too High for the Love-In," full of overtly mind-bending verse. Like the political "New Roman Times," this album follows a loose subtext about the band's youth on the northern California coast.
But what makes "La Costa Perdida" less of a Camper album, at least in the traditional sense, is the omnipresence of Lowery. His chewy vocals are a centerpiece of every track except "Aged in Wood," which is just a one-minute, throw-away intro to the final track, "A Love for All Time." The band, experts all, receive several spotlights -- the unison, roller-coaster runs of violinist Jonathan Segel and guitarist are breathtaking on "Summer Days," as close to an "Our Revolutionary Sweetheart" outtake as a fan could desire -- but without the occasional loopy, genre-mashing instrumental, the album's vision seems alarmingly singular.
Many people these days know Lowery more for his university lectures and activist stances on digital music rights, not to mention his firm response to NPR blogger Emily White. On April 4, Lowery will be part of a panel, "The Business of Music in a Digital Age," at Lake Forest College on the North Shore.