No single band can embody an entire era of music, but that didn't stop Camper Van Beethoven from trying. For the latter half of the '80s, the California group pretended that punk, ska, folk, hippie expansiveness, and proto-slacker attitude could all move to a pop beat, a melody offset by Jonathan Segel's weepy violin, and lyrics that singer David Lowery made sound sarcastic even when they looked sincere on paper. It all worked remarkably well until it grew unwieldy, and at the end of the decade, Lowery packed up the country influences that had crept into the band's later albums and left to form the pleasant but hit-or-miss band Cracker. Reunion rumors began with the release of the 2000 rarities collection Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead. Long Live Camper Van Beethoven, and those rumors were confirmed by a later tour.
New Roman Times, the group's first new album since 1989's Key Lime Pie, makes it even more official. Where most reunion discs sound like half-hearted attempts to capture a lost time, Roman finds the band taking inspiration from the times at hand. The loose concept album follows a Texas soldier who, in the wake of a terrible attack, joins the army, fights in a war, grows disillusioned, gets recruited by TexSecurIntellicorp to quell uprisings in the Republic Of California, and joins the Camper Van Beethoven resistance movement before the process starts to repeat itself.
As drama, it poses no threat to King Lear or even Quadrophrenia, but it makes for an unpredictable record that unmistakably operates in the proud tradition of CVB's past work. "Might Makes Right" sarcastically turns the title sentiment into ska. "Militia Song" finds a madman of the Unabomber variety justifying himself to a jaunty Appalachian melody. The druggy disillusionment of "I Am Talking To This Flower" somehow segues into a "cover" of Steve Reich's spoken-word phase composition "Come Out." "White Fluffy Clouds" mistakes jammy excess for pleasing eclecticism and some tracks never find their footing, but New Roman Times stands firm as an assured, unexpected comeback from a band that's been away too long.