Vacation Village, the newest release from Brooklyn’s own Love Camp 7, is a “Pandora’s Box” of offbeat impressions and tangled emotions from composer Dann Baker’s childhood and early adolescence in 1960s Southern California. Baker’s vision of Los Angeles—and childhood itself, for that matter—is a dizzying swirl of sunny days, scenic drives and colorful images, all tightly interwoven with the disappointment, humiliations and outright abjection that far too many of us seem to encounter along the way. Like the sights and billboards along Sunset Boulevard, the images in Baker’s songs quickly shift from the banal to the bizarre and back again, A visionary reflection on a favorite album cover by the Beach Boys. A gang of neighborhood kids digging for crawdads in a creek behind Frank Zappa’s house. A young boy and his grandmother playing happily on the beach. The mysteries of life revealed in a childhood snack.
What makes listening to singer/guitarist Baker and his longtime bandmates Bruce Hathaway (on bass) and Dave Campbell (on drums) such a wild, fun-filled ride is that the guys refuse to take sides, finally, between the dark and light shades of the songs, between the good memories and the bad. The band’s music, like the vision of things it accompanies and propels, is a sometimes delicate, sometimes not-so-delicate balance of extremes, from sweetly crafted ballads and bright, Beatley pop (Baker himself would insist on his indebtedness to Brian Wilson and Arthur Lee) to the tense, angular phrasings of progressive rock and modern jazz. And it’s all somehow pulled miraculously together by an insistent, psych-rock inventiveness that, for all the band’s musical nostalgia, owes more to the loft studio than the garage.
For all their formal complexity, most of the songs on Vacation Village sound surprisingly simple and direct. The trio of Baker, Campbell, and Hathaway negotiate even the jerkiest rhythms and most abrupt time shifts with ease, pulling all the sounds and influences together with such apparent effortlessness that it’s easy to miss just how rich and challenging most of these songs are. What you will hear clearly, though, is just how gifted and seamless a unit the trio has become over the years. Throughout Vacation Village, the boys in the band get to show their seasoned chops in all sorts of strange and unexpected musical directions: from the frantic, stop-and-start eclecticism of “By the Creek with Terry James” to the powerful churning hard rock riff at the end of the “Cinerama” to the clean pop facility of “The Jello Song” to the cool, restrained jazz phrasings on the instrumental bridge to “Runaway.” The last song describes the brief, pathetic misadventures of a teenage runaway in Laurel Canyon and brings a sadly disillusioned, outsiders’ perspective to the album’s otherwise insiders’ look at life in L.A. Baker’s sweetly anti-climactic answer to “She’s Going Home,” the song ends with a homesick whimper, instead of a self-destructive bang, as the girl finally decides, over a tearful morning-after pancake breakfast, to call her mother and get a ticket back to Ohio. Other highlights include “Not Cool Enough for Daryl Genis’s Party,” a jerky, sadly comic celebration of teenage unpopularity, and “Love Camp 7,” with Baker’s delicate cynically sweet, John Lennon-style croon slowly edging its way toward the explosive, self-celebrating, psychedelic chorus:
Love Camp 7 is here again.
They have presents for you.
They have good reasons to love you
Like you want to be loved.
But my favorite by far—and probably the oddest song on the recording—is “The Jello Song,” in which a small boy is lured into an ecstatic reverie by the tiny chunks of fruit suspended in his molded, gelatinous dessert. Over a bouncy, insistent beat, Baker fills the bright recurring melody with increasingly odd and heroic observations:
I see darkness at noon;
I see the meaning of red;
I see the sun and the moon;
I see inside my head.
And all that just from staring into a wobbly plateful of Jello. So buy this record. Harass and intimidate your local record storeowner if that’s what it takes to find it. See the band in concert every chance you get. Even resort to stalking the not-so-elusive Mr. Baker, if the mood strikes you. Bud don’t overlook Love Camp 7 this time around. They’re just too damn strange and too damned good to miss.
David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.