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Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011

Camper Van Beethoven Thrives Amid Decadent Decay

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"Dangerous business, using irony in America." That's what David Lowery's English aunt once told him, and it's a fitting caution—not just for someone writing in America, but also for working in the medium of rock 'n' roll. Subtlety is not the strong point of a style whose name was originally a euphemism for "the nasty."

That's why it's taken time for Lowery's sly wit to find purchase. During the '80s he co-founded the psychedelic, rootsy art-punk oddballs Camper Van Beethoven. When they broke up in 1990 due to internal tensions, Lowery started the more sonically straightforward Cracker, which enjoyed initial mainstream appeal during the early '90s thanks to hits like "Low" and "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)." Their popularity found a lower orbit as the '90s closed, just as Camper returned from hiatus more popular than ever. The band's return coincided with a critical reappraisal and renewed appreciation for Lowery's entire catalog.

Without any hits and little more than word of mouth to spread their praises, Camper's sustained appeal is a bit puzzling. "I wonder if it has to do with the trajectory," Lowery offers from his Atlanta-area home. "If, as our society slowly decays into decadence, irony and cynicism become more common and accepted."

Of course, cynicism has a way of proving prophetic sometimes. Such is the case with Camper Van Beethoven's last album, 2004's New Roman Times. Written in the aftermath of 9/11, it imagines the blue state/red state divide hardening such that Texas and California become warring republics. With ideological differences even more pitched and politicians like Texas Gov. Rick Perry talking of secession, the album is like Nostradamus. (All right, not that close.)

As always, the album's convoluted story is rife with surreal details. It includes a wounded vet who joins a hippie/skater resistance based in Mexico, parallel universe communication that recalls (but predates) "Fringe" and competing blue/gray aliens who may be behind genetically modified pot that makes you smarter. (Lowery explains this futuristic America's entire back story on his blog, 300songs.com.)

Writing such dense (if surprisingly nimble and catchy) music has always consigned the quintet to the margins. Formed in California in the early '80s, they were self-styled iconoclasts and former hardcore punks with fiddle as one of their lead instruments. But what began as an expression of rebellion took on a life of its own.

"That was our only compass—'Let's do this the way nobody would expect us to do this.' But it morphed into this rediscovery of '60s English and American psychedelica pretty quickly after initially being reactionary to punk rock," Lowery says. "I remember playing with the Dead Kennedys in Chico, Calif., to 800 skinheads. We were doing a fake hippie thing and growing out our hair. This one guy down front was mouthing to me, 'I'm gonna kick your ass.'"

They released five albums, including two major-label efforts for Virgin—their masterpiece, 1988's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and the disappointing follow-up (minus fiddler Jonathan Segel), 1989's Key Lime Pie. They broke up and reunited in '99 to put together an archival odds and sods collection, Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead. Long Live Camper Van Beethoven, into which they snuck newly recorded material. Two years later they released a track-for-track cover of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, which they claimed they'd recorded a decade before.

"There were all these subtle clues in there that this was a lie, but everybody just bought it," Lowery says. "Then, when we started New Roman Times, we were finally, 'Let's just tell people we're a band again. Nobody's getting it.'"

Writing takes time because of the band's über-democratic, everyone-must-sign-on approach, which Lowery describes by lifting a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

"It leads to some creativity, but it isn't the fastest or best way to run a business or a band," Lowery says. "It's like an 'anarcho-syndicalist commune' until someone gets very frustrated and seizes power. There's a junta for a couple weeks and something gets done, then it reverts to its normal state of anarchy."

Despite this, the band has put together the beginnings of a new album, which they hope to release in the summer. Lowery expects them to preview three to four songs at upcoming shows.

"[The new album] is very much in the folky, indie-rock thing that Camper does, leaning toward that English early prog rock like Fairport Convention," he says. "Maybe we'll be a little braver about the prog-rock influences this time and step up the King Crimson, early Genesis, Yes, Fred Frith a little more."

One thing is for sure: When it comes to Camper Van Beethoven, you can count on more than you expect.

Camper Van Beethoven plays 8 p.m. Jan. 3 at Shank Hall with American Scarecrows.