CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN

"New Roman Times"

Pitch-a-Tent/Vanguard

With its eclectic instrumentals, a "pop hit" version of Steve Reich's tape-loop piece "Come Out" and one song that is basically another played backward, "New Roman Times" might seem to pick up where Camper Van Beethoven left off in 1989. Yet this album is not merely the sort of post-punk whimsy that made the group a college-radio favorite in the late '80s. The California-bred sextet has reunited to compose a loose song cycle about a future America that's experiencing a second civil war and whose basis is not sci-fi at all. The inspiration for such numbers as "Might Makes Right" and the title tune is clearly spelled I-R-A-Q.

Although six of the 20 tracks are jigs, mazurkas and such led by David Segel's violin, much of the album was inspired by singer-lyricist David Lowery's discussions with veterans at his dad's VFW hall. "51-7" is named for an elite commando squad; "White Fluffy Clouds" is about bombs, not weather; and "Hey Brother" takes the viewpoint of a suicide bomber. "New Roman Times" has plenty of swing and some humor: One playful battle anthem vows that "we would die for hippy chix." Still, as the album reclaims the band's old sound and disposition, it insists that you can't go home again -- at least not while there's a war on.

-- Mark Jenkins

Appearing Tuesday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Camper Van Beethoven, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8123. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)