Back before the term "indie rock" morphed from a statement of fact into a signifier of genre, Camper Van Beethoven was among the vanguard of '80s-era bands that had no use for major labels. Luminaries such as Husker Du, the Replacements and the Minutemen were among CVB's contemporaries. But while those acts played their punkish noise-pop relatively straight, the Campers got goofy about it, checking in with warped, irony-drenched gems such as "Take the Skinheads Bowling" and "(We're a) Bad Trip." (Sample verse: "Came to your party / Drank all the beer / 'Cause we're a bad trip.")
On CVB's best-ever song, "Where the Hell Is Bill?," bandleader David Lowery rattles off a litany of possible reasons why the group's trend-spotting drummer has gone AWOL. "Maybe he went to get a sideways haircut," Lowery intones dryly over twangy guitars and a lock-step country beat. "Maybe he went to go mod-ska dancing."
Like many of its peers, the band did eventually sign with a major, but some things never change. Fifteen years after calling it quits, the original members of CVB have returned to action with a disc that harks back to the band's halcyon days -- albeit with an au courant twist: "New Roman Times" is framed as a political rock opera, a far-flung tale about a young Texan who signs on with the military, heads out to war and eventually comes home drug-addled and full of doubts about the U.S. government.
But wait, there's more: After his return, the ex-soldier joins a private security firm -- the too richly named TexSecurIntellicorp -- and although it turns out that he doesn't much like his new gig, the album's liner notes report that the young man does enjoy "hanging out with drug dealers and arms traffickers."
Got all that? No? Not to worry: The disc doesn't rise or fall with its far-fetched narrative. And though its plotline does seem a tad portentous for this band of inveterate yuksters, there's no cause for alarm there, either. Frontman Lowery was born with his tongue lodged firmly in cheek, and "New Roman Times" bears just about the same relationship to protest music that "The Daily Show" does to the nightly news.
That, of course, is to its great advantage. Throughout the album, the Campers ably juxtapose fiddle-streaked folk-rock ("51-7," "That Gum You Like Is Back in Style") with the kind of self-consciously bombastic prog-rock ("Sons of the New Golden West," "White Fluffy Clouds") that long ago gave concept albums a well-deserved bad name. On one of the latter, "The Long Plastic Hallway," Lowery dispels any delusions of Jethro Tull-like grandeur by conjuring serpents whose "tongues were red and pointy" -- and then promptly noticing that "they were wearing very cool shoes."
A little later in the track, Lowery even name-checks David Byrne and celebrity DJ Rodney on the ROQ, presumably just to make sure everyone is paying attention -- and that we're all in on the joke. Indeed, at its best, "New Roman Times" is an apocalyptic comedy album set to music worthy of its makers' '80s heyday.