Camper Van Beethoven’s eighth album and first in eight years revives the character study of American oddities the band’s reunion record, New Roman Times, hatched way back in 2004. On La Costa Perdida, Camper keeps the crazies confined to small-town California in this second ode to scandal and scoundrels, among them a fugitive speaking broken Spanish and harboring a secret he can’t outrun. This “half-aware-o caballero” of the album’s upbeat title track kills off his woman and goes on the lam, all the while snarling a half-sinister warning: “You don’t wanna know.”
By the time this foot-tapping country ditty arrives, eight songs in, the album has suffocated the listener with the sort of sonic and vocal moodiness that once served Camper’s brand before the band grew up and got all seasoned and polished on us. Gone now is their sense of spontaneity. Even frontman David Lowery’s nasal yell hits the ear as a deliberate whine on songs like “Too High For the Love-In.” An on-again, off-again band for 30 years, Camper now sounds far too put together for a group whose leader once said, “You’ve got to constantly just kind of strive to be kind of immature.”
The scarce breathing room Camper does afford on La Costa Perdida allows for compelling moments like the reversed guitar-and-drums psychedelia of “Aged In Wood” and the extended instrumental preface to “Summer Days” — each runs about a minute long, though 40 minutes still remain on the album. And nothing here quite rivals the beauty of a more contemporary Camper song like “New Roman Times,” or even “Marigold” from Lowery’s 2011 solo record, though the opener, “Come Down the Coast,” comes close.
Even a so-so album has its surprises — “Peaches In the Summertime” offers a fun ska sendup of the folk standard “Shady Grove” — and it showcases the growth of a still-intact lineup that wrote the book on blending indie pop hooks with punk and rockabilly instinct. This was the band Lowery sacrificed in 1990 to form Cracker, though today he anchors and tours with both. Yet Cracker’s eighth album (Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, 2008) was one of its finest; “the lost coast” (La Costa Perdida, translated), however, seems all too fitting a name for Camper’s eighth.