Last year we had the young Los Angeles duo Best Coast singing about California on its album “The Only Place” with the musical question, “Why would you live anywhere else?” Now veteran band Camper Van Beethoven, with its new album “La Costa Perdida,” the band's first in nine years, is asking the same thing. But, coming from Camper Van Beethoven, it’s a much more complicated question.
“Come Down the Coast” opens this outing, the starting point of a journey along the album title’s lost shoreline. That’s “lost” not as in physically eroded, but emotionally, spiritually worn. Ghostly. With Camper singer-songwriter David Lowery behind the wheel, it’s a road trip that finds that everyone is somewhere else, or sometime else, song after song tinged with a sadness.
Well, Lowery and some of his bandmates too, are among the missing. He’s been living in Virginia for some years. Now, he would never be so mundane as to write about trying to recapture what he’s lost. But in that light, he’s among those hearing the sirens’ call of the album’s centerpiece song, “Northern California Girls,” the women pleading for the exiles to come home from Texas, come home from Brooklyn. This is not the lure of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” of 50 years ago. It’s not a Grateful Dead sunshine daydream. That’s gone.
There’s the signature Camper Van Beethoven jaundiced eye here, a bit snarky in such songs as “Too High for the Love-In.” And Lowery, in the song “You Gotta Roll,” goes so far as to quote ‘80s electro-pop act the Normal’s morbid car-crash vignette “Warm Leatherette.” It's that kind of road trip.
Even “Peaches in the Summertime,” as idyllic as it sounds, is a somber tale of unfulfilled, and illicit, desire. Its very title echoes Steinbeck in its allusions to - and illusions of - forbidden fruit here in paradise. It also recalls Tom Joad and his immigrant heirs in its poetic, emotional ties to ballads of displacement from the old world, whether the old world is Oklahoma or Oaxaca or somewhere even more distant.
But that’s the thing about California. Every old world is here. Every tradition is represented. That’s the wide-open cultural field that fueled Camper Van Beethoven’s music in the first place. In that regard, the MVP now, as then, is violinist Jonathan Segel. His fluid flights and boundless musical reach take Camper in unexpected, and unexpectedly delightful, directions, such as on “Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out,” with its Hendrix-meets-Zeppelin rock spiked by sidetrips into prog-rock hoedowns, or something like that.
“La Costa Perdida?” Maybe we are all lost here. But David Lowery and his Camper cohorts, after all these years, find it a very rich place in which to be lost, or be one of the lost. And in the end, they may not have a good answer to the not-so-rhetorical question, Why would we live anywhere else?