Last October’s New Roman Times, the first new album by Camper Van Beethoven in 15 years, comes out of the war-sodden atmosphere surrounding the 2004 election and the “global struggle against violent extremism,” as the Bush Administration is now calling the previously-titled “global war on terror” (Chicago Tribune, 7/31/05). Camper Van Beethoven breathed new life into the airwaves, netwaves, circuits, and connectors, not just because it was just so good to hear CVB together again, but also because the album is an unstaged rock opera questioning the current military effort in Iraq.
Following a young solider from recruitment to an elite unit to some future, “sci-fi alternate reality” war, CVB do what they do best: rock music that draws from Middle Eastern, south of the border, and other sources, while taking on issues from a humorous (read warped) perspective. After all, this is the band that gave us “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” an amusing combination of ideas—rolling deranged baldheads down the land while encouraging befriending even people with whom we may vehemently disagree.
You know that CVB is back as Jonathan Segel’s violin leads on the familiar world music flavors of “Son of the New Golden West,” acting like an overture for this opera, and “Might Makes Right,” with throw backs to “Border Ska” from Telephone Free Landslide Victory. Yet, early tracks on the album are more raucous than some CVB tunes, more like David Lowrey’s Cracker. This is where CVB returns to taking Classic Rock through their own filter. “51-7” has some Rolling Stones guitar work. “White Fluffy Clouds” revisits Classic Rock CVB-style while having a bridge sounding like something from II & III.
The album pokes holes in many different attitudes and political views like a grandmother I know who used a .22 to shoot holes in a 55-gallon drum to make a new burning barrel. Ready, aim, fire. “Militia Song” is a little mountain music about those radicals up in the hills with their guns stored up against the giant government conspiracy. “51-7” undermines macho militarism through the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, “Nothing to believe in except God and country/Can’t stand to see ‘em pushed around, messed with or f***ed up/Give me a chance to show the world what we’re made of.”
Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart used reverse tape loops (as they often have) on “She Divines Water,” a very clear nod to the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Following a reverse loop on “Sons of the New Golden West (Reprise),” CVB return to those idyllic vision of John Lennon, turning them on their head for “New Roman Times,” a song about the opera’s hero coming home physically and psychologically damaged. When Lowrey sings, “Oh, Morpheus, I’m going down,” you’re expecting him to complete the lyric: “to Strawberry Fields forever.” However, given the Iraq War milieu, the lyric could’ve certainly been “oil fields forever.”
CVB return to other themes from the past as well. “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart” celebrated Patty Hearst joining the SLA. Placing themselves in the story on New Roman Times, the soldier wants to join up with the “CVB resistance group.” CVB has always references drug use, and this album is no exception. The soldier returns from the war to smoke “lots of flower.” It’s a very post-Vietnam tinged step in the story.
What gives this album its very needed place even in 2005 are its comments on the war and our attitudes towards our country’s role in the world. “Might Makes Right” finds the solider beginning to question his role as he says, “I’ve got a living breathing shadow/Crossed up in my scope/My partner gives the signal/I pull the trigger then there’s smoke. . .Might makes right/They say that God is on our side/I don’t believe them.” With the “Border Ska” sound, CVB makes it easier to swallow, this recognition that our perception of God always being on our side is a preposterous one.
Christianity has suffered some of the worst abuse by politicians who equate the political will of the United States with the will of God. Such an attitude does great damage to Christianity, as it leads to people believing that Jesus sanctioned the Iraq War and blesses all decisions made by George W. Bush. Non-Christians around the world are horrified by this rhetoric, but meanwhile, we believe the politicians as long as they say, “May God bless America,” at the end of their speeches.
CVB are the prophets that are needed to call us to reevaluate how we speak about ourselves, our country, and our faith in God. “Might Makes Right” should be required listening for churches before they begin to attempt to speak about how God works in today’s world.
Thanks to Camper Van Beethoven, Pitch-a-Tent, and Vanguard Records for the review CD.
Blues: Buddy Miller’s Universal United House of Prayer
Also from 2004, Buddy Miller’s Universal United House of Prayer is a tremendous blues, Gospel, country-folk rock album. I mention it here in combination with Camper Van Beethoven, not because they match up stylistically, but because Miller does an incredible version of Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side.” Dylan’s song is as timely now as it was in the late 60’s. While Miller’s country voice might get some thinking he’s doing the mainstream country, “God Bless the USA,” the song questions the prevailing attitude that America has God’s blessing on all that it does, even “the Indians died.” Following America’s history of justifying our actions by claiming God’s blessings, the song acts like Camper Van Beethoven’s “Might Makes Right” to call us again to God’s Word and see what a fallacy it is to say that God is always blessing America at the expense of others.
While Miller’s album exudes more Gospel than many Christian albums, he does this from the grease, grit, and grime of life, helping us all to realize that faith in Jesus Christ has everything to do with real life.
Thanks to Buddy Miller, New West Records, and Vector Management for the review CD.