A few days ago, during top-secret Beach Boys research, I learned that Camper Van Beethoven is releasing a new album next week. Entitled La Costa Perdida (The Lost Coast), it’s their first album since 2004’s underappreciated stoner epic, New Roman Times. When Billboard asked CVB founder, David Lowery, about his inspirations for the new album, here’s what he said:
“Somehow I started reading about hippies and northern California back in the 60s, and we’re a northern California band, so we started digging into that. There’s Henry Miller, the Kerouac stuff. We just kind of got into this northern California sort of thematic place, and that’s largely what this record is, a little portrait of that coast of California — the Lost Coast, they call it, so it’s called La Costa Perdida.”
Lowery calls the album “the fake hippie/surfer side of Camper Van Beethoven. It’s like Camper Van Beethoven leaning towards the Beach Boys’ Big Sur period and the Grateful Dead. There’s this Beach Boys album called Holland that we have long had a fascination with in Camper, and we sort of ended up paying tribute to it by accident.” The track “Northern California Girls,” he says, also takes a page out of the Beach Boys’ songbook. “Instead of ‘California Girls’ I started fucking around and singing about northern California girls,” he says. “Then I very quickly developed a story to it and finished it off.”
—David Lowery to Billboard, November 8, 2012
Camper Van Beethoven – Northern California Girls
The first time you hear “Northern California Girls,” you might be nonplussed. However, as with so many things Camper, a few more listens and you’ll probably find its hooks in you. I think the worst part of the song is the opening :22, with the reverby voices repeating the title. Once we enter the song proper, “Girls” turns into a lilting ballad akin to my favorite track on New Roman Times, “That Gum You Like Is Back in Style.” Jonathan Segel‘s violin is used to great country effect, but there are also similarities to fellow NorCalians Pavement in the chorus and instro break.
Northern California girls say, “You don’t know what you’re missing”
I got a good job, stay home and play the guitar
You can raise the children barefoot on the beaches
Teach ’em how to surf and play baseball
Northern California girls say, “Come home from Brooklyn!”
This verse of “Northern California Girls” brings us back to the Beach Boys. Lowery said the CVB were inspired by the Boys, a statement echoed by Segel, who told the 40 Watt, “While the Northern Cal idea was David’s, the vibe of many of the songs reminded me of the classic Beach Boys album, Holland.”
Though I’m glad Camper was inspired by Holland, I’m not sure it’s that great of an album. A few songs are promising, but don’t really go anywhere. (I’m looking at you “Sail On, Sailor,” “Leaving This Town,” and “Funky Pretty.”) Carl Wilson‘s “The Trader” is the album’s single song highlight, and actually two songs in one. Where the first half sounds like Elvis Costello or Jeff Tweedy country-pop, the back half sounds like Buckingham–Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac. I like the first half more than the second half, but it’s worth mentioning that Camper Van Beethoven covered the Mac’s sprawling epic Tusk in its entirety because they’re Camper Van Beethoven and that’s what they do. No, seriously.
FROM TIME TO TIME I MUST GO AWAY
Where Holland is at its best is a three-song cycle at the end of Side One called the “California Saga.” Apparently, while recording the album in Holland — hence the title — Al Jardine and Mike Love were homesick and said, “Fuck this shit, let’s get back to doing what we do best — writing about California.”
Beach Boys – California Saga: Big Sur
Singer/songwriter: Mike Love
Maybe it’s just me, but the spooky intro is telling me we’re about to enter a mid-’70s Neil Young song or possibly even Big Star‘s “Holocaust.” Then it shifts gears into Mike Love’s excellent waltz-time country ballad. I realize that in 2013, most Beach Boys enthusiasts hate Love, but this is the kind of song that should reclaim a measure of his legacy. It’s flawless. In fact, “Big Sur” sounds a lot like what people 20-25 years in the future would call alt.country, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Also, if you want to trace a direct line from the Holland to La Costa Perdida, these lyrics will do the trick. Lowery’s references to playing guitar and raising kids on the beach comes straight from the Book of Love.
Live in canyons covered with springtime green
Wild birds and flowers to be heard and seen
And on my old guitar I’ll make up songs to sing
Sparkling springs from the mountainside
Join the Big Sur River rushing to the tide
Where my kids can search for sea shells at low tide
Beach Boys – California Saga: The Beaks of Eagles
Poetry: Robinson Jeffers
Songwriters: Al & Lynda Jardine
Singers: Mike Love & Al Jardine
OK, so flute-driven spoken word smacks of Moody Blues-esque pretentiousness. In its defense, “The Beaks Of Eagles” was written in 1937 by one of California’s most important 20th century poets, Robinson Jeffers, a huge influence on my favorite Golden State writer, Mr. Charles Bukowski. Keep in mind this was 1973, a point when the American ecology movement was just beginning to gain a cultural foothold, and it’s in that context that “The Beaks Of Eagles” needs to be viewed.
Even if you’re not a fan of the poetry, Al Jardine’s pre-chorus/chorus saves the song. It’s simple, yet beautiful country-pop that anticipates future material from Gary Louris of The Jayhawks and The Shins. Also, the multi-part vocal harmonies are top shelf, which I’m sure will come as a shock to you.
WE’LL SOON BE HOME
Beach Boys – California Saga: California
Songwriter: Al Jardine
Singers: Brian Wilson & Mike Love
Have you ever been to a festival, the Big Sur congregation
Where Country Joe will do his show
And he’d sing about liberty
And the people there in the open air, are one big family
Eleven years after “Surfin’ Safari” hit the charts and ten years after “Surfin’ USA” made them a national institution, Al Jardine’s “California” is a western parody of the Beach Boys that celebrates the 150-mile stretch of the central California coast beginning at Morro Bay and extending up through Big Sur, Monterey, and cutting over to Salinas. How western? When Brian Wilson and Mike Love sing, “get yourself in that cool, clear water” they’re basically the Grandsons Of The Pioneers, extending the western group harmony singing tradition that began in Los Angeles. In the same way that cowboy songs often romanticized the settling of the West, the songs of the Beach Boys romanticized California, and Jardine cleverly trades on both traditions.
If we can work backwards from Camper Van Beethoven to the Beach Boys, “California” also allows us to work backwards from the Beach Boys to The Who. Keith Moon, of course, was in a surf band called The Beachcombers prior to joining The Who and Pete Townshend was a disciple of Carl Wilson, both as a singer and guitarist. With that in mind, the giddyup westernness of this song mirrors (probably unwittingly) the “we’ll soon be home” part of Townshend’s own brilliant song cycle, “A Quick One While He’s Away.” Considering that “Northern California Girls” and the “California Saga” both revolve around the idea of coming home, I think this thematic connection between all three bands is almost not coincidence.
A LONG WAY FROM THE BEAT GENERATION
Although I wanted to connect the dots between CVB and the Beach Boys, all this talk of Big Sur leaves me no choice. I’m required to end this post with one of the Adios Lounge’s patron saints, Jay Farrar. Back in 2009, he and Ben Gibbard of Meth Lab For Hootie collaborated on One Fast Move Or I’m Gone, a musical tribute to Jack Kerouac’s novel, Big Sur. One of the album’s high points was Farrar’s “Big Sur,” in which the postcard beauty of California’s central coast belies the destructive force of both the Pacific Ocean and humanity itself. I love the album version, but this live performance from WNYC in New York City is stunning. I’ve included the lyrics below because Kerouac + Farrar = well duh.
Jay Farrar & Ben Gibbard – Big Sur
Settling down with warm-glow wood stove and kerosene
Peace you’re looking for, peace you’ll find
In the tangled mad cliff-sides and crashing dark
Of Big Sur
Of Big Sur
Rapturous ring of silence, Pacific fury
Flashing on the rocks, sea shroud towers
The innocence of health and stillness in the wild
Of Big Sur
Of Big Sur
This whole surface of the world as we know it now
Will be covered with the silt of a billion years in time
And I see as much as doors will allow
And a long way from the Beat generation
Here comes the nightly moth to his nightly death
In Big Sur
In Big Sur
Best thing to do is not be false
The rocks of the valley have left no howl of complaint
And I’m just a sick clown and so is everybody else
In Big Sur
In Big Sur