What's the best concept album about Bush's brave new America from 2004? While Green Day's American Idiot is no doubt the most popular, Camper Van Beethoven's New Roman Times is equally acerbic and twice as witty-it also features lots of pedal steel, fiddle and lyrics like, "That gum you like is back in style/ Haven't seen you for a while/ Spent all of Saturday pining away/ For that strange Quebecoise girl in Cirque du Soliel."
If you think of Camper Van Beethoven at all, you probably don't think of 20-track concept albums complete with the de rigueur spaced-out instrumentals. New Roman Times has the usual concept album plot-disillusioned boy with fucked-up family history joins radical fringe group, then does a 180-degree turn and joins different radical fringe group and/or becomes Christ figure (see: Tommy, Quadrophenia, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, The Wall). But it's also down-to-earth in a way prog-rockers can't be.
Camper and Cracker founder David Lowery says the boys didn't sit around listening to a lot of Rush or Yes while making New Roman Times-he sees the effort more akin to Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.
"To a certain extent, we did listen to the Who, which I think you can hear in songs like "51-7,' but we didn't really listen to a lot of concept albums," he says. "All the songs just happened to be about the same subject matter as we were writing them. That led us to believe that we were making a concept record, which in way is very Camperish."
Many of the songs started as ideas Lowery was working on with Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman, but as Lowery toured with the Camper reunion, the project evolved. Eventually, the songs came to tell the story of a young misfit-turned-soldier for the Fundamental Christian Republic of Texas-a country that's on the verge of invading California.
"I grew up on military bases, so the main character could have easily been one of my cousins," says Lowery. "I don't know who said it, but all fiction is autobiographical."
When the band began the album, there was not yet a war in Iraq. Instead, the album was about the neo-McCarthyism Lowery saw infecting the nation. But it's also about space aliens and hallucinogenic drugs because, well, every Camper record has to be in part about space aliens and hallucinogenic drugs.
After spending a year on tour supporting the album, Lowery is continuing with life on the road, but he's stripped things down from Camper's six-man line up. For the next month, he's playing acoustic sets with Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman and Camper violinist-guitarist-keyboardist Jonathan Segel.
"It's mix of old and new Camper and old and new Cracker," Lowery says. "And Johnny's going to play a few of his solo tunes-so you'll hear everything."
What that translates to is a free-for-all and rockin' good time with songs about Bush, aliens, drugs and teen angst-which are all pretty similar, if you think about it.BCamper van Beethoven and Cracker play at the Casbah, 9 p.m. on Feb. 24. $17-$20. 619-232-HELL.