New Roman Times
Leave it to Camper Van Beethoven to return after a 15-year hiatus with a ridiculously ambitious, infectious and musically amorphous concept album. Set in an alternate universe where the partisan divide in America has resulted in warring republics (Christian Texas and liberal California), New Roman Times follows a young soldier as he morphs from gung-ho automaton into doubt-filled everyman.
But this is no mere anti-war diatribe. In their heyday, CVB were master social satirists depicting politically charged current events (Patty Hearst's kidnapping, Ronald Reagan's presidency) with biting humor and poignancy, and the intervening years haven't dulled those talents. This record is a spot-on critique of the cultural malaise, democratic indifference and unadulterated stupidity that finds us -- and especially the soldiers bidden to do the dirty work -- neck-deep in global shit.
How well it works musically depends on whether you remember CVB as the lo-fi stoner savants of their 1985 debut Telephone Free Landslide Victory or the professional band that called it quits with the more polished Key Lime Pie four years later. The panoramic musical vision still exists, driven in large part by the unmistakable violin work of Jonathan Segal, the rhythm section Victor Krummenacher (bass) and Chris Pederson (drums), lead guitarist Greg Lisher and, of course, David Lowery's pointed pen and mordant mouth. It's there in the fiddle-driven Slavic waltz "R'n'R Uzbekistan" and country weeper "That Gum You Like Is Back in Style," as well as the ska outburst "Might Makes Right" and tape-manipulation of "I Hate This Part of Texas." There is new territory, too, but the grungy "The Long Plastic Hallway," bloated prog-rock of "Sons of the New Golden West" and Cracker-like "I Am Talking to This Flower" extend the band's reach -- and the record's 70-minute running time -- too far.
It's natural that CVB would want to include music styles from after their break up, but when you're tossing around the kitchen sink, best to make it as light as possible. Still, they have moved forward, older and mostly wiser. It's by no means a perfect document, but New Roman Times proves they haven't wasted their time or ours.
Track to Burn: "Might Makes Right"
Caught Between Worlds
At A Loss
In an interview, Stinking Lizaveta drummer Cheshire Agusta (still a stunner at 43, in every sense of the word) said that when people approach her after a show and try to describe the band's music -- an entrancing blend of prog, louder-than-love riffology, and deft free improv -- what she hears come out their mouths is who they are, and not the other way around.
Which fits, you see. Named after a line in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Stinking Lizaveta (who also include Yanni Papadopoulos on guitar and his brother Alexi on drums) are pretty unique in the rock world -- a sort of Kyuss-ified Dirty Three, their instrumental mini-epics come across as something like what Glenn Branca might sound like if he'd taken over the reins of Iron Maiden (See "Beyond Shadows," "Scientist of the Future").
While ostensibly a live act -- on stage, the band will often jet off into large-scale sections of improv -- Caught Between Worlds is a nice enough document of the Lizaveta sound: a sort of musical gray area, an overlap and confluence of styles that allows the group the freedom to branch off in any direction. Perhaps being caught between worlds isn't such a bad thing after all.
Track to Burn: "Beyond Shadows"
--Timothy C. Davis
Land of the Sun
It was in the 50s that free-jazz outlaws Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and others began breaking the established molds of jazz. Bassist and fellow catalyst Charlie Haden has been along for the ride ever since those initial rumblings. Haden honed his chops as a member in early Coleman ensembles and, now after half-a-century, his bass sounds subtly confident on Land of the Sun. Eight compositions on the recording are by Mexican composer Jose Sabre Marroquin, along with one each by Agustin Lara and Armando Manzanero. This collection is spiritual and reflective, and tinged with the Latin jazz so favored by Haden over the years. The bass is almost an afterthought here, but acts as a foundation for collaborator and co-producer Gonzalo Rubalcaba's piano and percussion work, along with an ensemble that also includes guitar, sax, flute and trumpet. Haden has played plenty of dissonant music in the past, but this recording is mellow jazz. Although he didn't compose the track "Nostalgia," it may not be too far from what a reminiscing Haden may have written. Haden has never lingered long in any one of jazz's many niches, and Land of the Sun continues to exude that confidence.
Track to burn: "Nostalgia"