David Lowery and Victor Krummenacher of Camper Van Beethoven first started making music together in the Southern California city of Redlands, but the band really came together in Santa Cruz, in the northern part of the Golden State, and it's not hard to get a sense of where the group's greater loyalties lie by comparing their two concept albums about life in California, 2013's La Costa Perdida and 2014's El Camino Real. While La Costa Perdida was a relatively loose and upbeat celebration of Northern California, El Camino Real focuses on the southern part of the state, and the tone and mood are significantly different; Michael Urbano's drumming here is precise but stiff, with a noted absence of swing, and the playful report of Jonathan Segel's fiddle is usually pushed to the back of the mix, while Lowery's vocals sound decidedly weary when they ought to feel lively on numbers like "Classy Dames and Able Gents" and "It Was Like That When We Got Here." The best numbers on El Camino Real are generally the most somber, especially the bitter lament of "Sugartown," the drifter's narrative of "Grasshopper," and the country-styled tale of broken hearts and bad luck "Darken Your Door." It doesn't take long to notice that the men of Camper Van Beethoven were having a lot more fun up north, while El Camino Real finds them playing with a technical skill that puts their early classics to shame but sounding curiously short on the joy and spontaneity that were once this band's trademark. Plenty of Californians spend hours arguing the virtues of Los Angeles vs. San Francisco, and Camper Van Beethoven were wise enough to make these two albums a more richly detailed conversation than that, but a couple spins of El Camino Real makes it obvious these guys are on the same side as Tony Bennett in this debate.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming