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Monday, August 08, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Camper Van Beethoven
Camper Van Beethoven was a band that help restore a lot of faith in the 1980's. An indie/college rock success story, they were endearingly organic, and oddball. Their music was consistently engaging and surprising and fairly complex, yet they managed to retain a garage band sound; their appearance in the mid 1980's pointed towards alternative rock, and the lo-fi California slacker rock embodied by Pavement. The plundered any and all music forms, specifically as a reaction against punk's narrow parameters. They were laconic, droll, smart, ambitious, ridiculous, and tuneful. They were among the more eccentric bands of the 1980's, once recording a cover version of Fleetwood Mac's entire Tusk album as a lo-fi/jangle pop/indie rock/garage band/eclectic epic. They disbanded at their peak, and had a credible reunion. They never quite broke through to the mainstream, but have seen appreciation and acknowledgement of their significant achievements grow over the years.
Into their their jangly lo-fi sound, they blended elements of punk, folk, ska, country, acid rock, and world music, and employed an unconventional musical lineup. Their sound, while reminiscent of other bands in a vague way, was wholly their own; singer David Lowery also had one of the most distinctive voices in the late 80's indie world. Their freewheeling fusion of this array of musical styles and imprinting it with their own stamp is probably their greatest legacy; at the time, it was a revelation.
The band was formed in Redlands, CA by Lowery, along with school friend Chris Molla, after the breakup of their first group, Box O' Laffs in 1983. They were joined by guitarist Greg Lisher, drummer Anthony Guess, and Jonathan Segel, who played violin, mandolin, and Keyboards. Segel was a key member; his violin helped shape Camper Van Beethoven's distinctive sound, setting the band apart from the samey-sounding jangle pop and roots rock bands that were emerging in the mid-1980's. It also lent an air of sophistication to their sound that stood out from most indie rock, which was still heavily punk based. The band was defiant in this approach; they pursued it as a reaction against punk dogma that they found creatively stifling.
Their first album, Telephone Landslide Victory, released by I.R.S. in 1985 became an instant cult classic. Remarkable in its genre fusions, which are employed with a wry Zappa-esque humor but doesn't skimp on the hooks, it topped the Village Voice annual poll of music critics in 1986, assuring it of notice in high places. The opener, "Border Ska" was a statement of purpose, with its ska rhythm and lead guitar, its carribean flourishes, and its cheesy farfisa organ. "Wasted" the third track takes an off-kilter, woozy harmony and frames it around Lowery's ode to loserdom, which features a discordant violin solo that would've sounded far out on a Velvet Underground album. Ambiguity Song is harmonic jangle pop with violin about going nowhere. "Where The Hell Is Bill?" is a pokey little harmonic tune with scraping violin and an absurd lyric from Lowery, sung in a deadpan drawl. "Take The Skinheads Bowling", resurrected by Michael Moore as the theme song to Bowling for Columbine, is a romping jangle pop rocker with ironic backing vocals and surrealistic lyrics. Taken as a whole, the album really is a world unto itself, and rewards repeated listens. The album was greeted with some suspicion at first; the humor and odd arrangements made some suspect novelty act. Ultimately the sincerity and humanism of the performance and even lyrics win over all but the most skeptical. The album never made the charts, but it did garner considerable college radio airplay, which the issuance of the Take The Skinheads Bowling EP in 1986 consolidated.
Their next album, perversely titled II & III, was released in January 1986. Lowery and Molla's schoolfriend Chris Pederson replaced Guess on drums, completing the band's classic lineup. II & III isn't so much of a progression in their sound as it is a different approach to the same idea. As on the debut, influences from all over the musical spectrum creep in, blending into a cohesive whole. Almost in defiance of those who scoffed at their novelty appeal, they gave tracks names like "ZZ Top Goes To Egypt" (a manic discordant violin workout with a Peter Gunn style beat) and "No Krugerrands for David". The overall sound has changed from the lo-fi ambience of the debut to a fuzzier garage-punk sound, although never getting too fuzzy to distract from the improved chops the band displays. "(We're A) Bad Trip" is a killer 60's garage band fuzz-rocker with psychedelic surf lead guitar and convincingly snarly punk vocal. "Sad Lover's Waltz" is a violin-led old-timey country waltz that sounds like a woozy Flying Burrito Brothers. They also cover Sonic Youth's "I Love Her All The Time" before most people knew who Sonic Youth was, and "No More Bullshit" is an arch but joyous volley of kooky non-sequitors. Once again, some listeners couldn't help wondering if the joke was really on them, but as with the first album, it benefits from an infectious pleasure in its own discoveries. Again, the album didn't chart, but the cult continued to grow.
The band's third album, Camper Van Beethoven arrived in August 1986. This album marked Camper Van Beethoven's graduation from borderline novelty act to bona-fide experimental rock. To underscore this, they covered Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" in predictably unpredictable Camper Van Beethoven style. The song, appearing before the finale is a real keynote; on this album, the band sounded like it has gone psychedelic on top of everything else on their albums. Given more freedom to play with the studio, they made good use of it, manipulating tape, texturing the guitars, bringing out sounds from unlikely corners. "Joe Stalin's Cadillac" get's a Led Zeppelin reference, "Good Guys & Bad Guys" finds the coomon denomonator between reggae, folk, and country. "Still Wishing To Course" brings in a sitar and goes heavy psychedelic as it follows "We Saw Jerry's Daughter", a nod to Jerry Garcia. The band is more musicianly here than they've been so far, and they sound as commited to the music as they do to the jokes and irony. Another non-charter, the album closed out their IRS contract, and heralded the band's move to Virgin, where they'd produce their best work.
The band set to work on sessions for what would be its debut album for Virgin, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. During some downtime from the 1987 session, the band decided to record Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album, song for song. Never officially released until 2002, the tapes leaked and made the rounds among fans. It is an epic tour of the band's portfolio of influences, but it also has a lot of new sounds to offer. "Sara" is creepified, with Lowery singing and mumbling through a filter, turning the lush romantic ballad into an obsessive's nightmare. None of the songs are given straight treatment, yet most of them work fine in their new context. For those who heard it when it appeared, it whet appetites for their next album, which was to have a larger budget than the band had ever been allotted before. Tusk, and even the rumor of it, proved a good teaser.
Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, when it finally appeared in 1988, was worth the wait. For the first time, the band seemed to be taking things fairly seriously; they also seemed intent on breaking through to a larger audience. As a result, the jokes are toned down (but not lost altogether), Lowery sings more than drawls, and enunciates clearly, his vocals are moved forward in the mix from previous albums. The recording is crystalline; every nuance of the instrumentation is audible. The band plays with a rockier punch than they had previously; much of the jangle is gone in favor of a beefier, psychedelicized, rock approach, with Lisher's guitar given more prominence than ever before. While this disappointed some early fans, who liked the dizzy offhandedness of their earlier albums, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart's more measured approach results in the finest showcase the band ever got; this is arguably the album for newcomers to start with (the debut is the only other real choice). Camper van Beethoven didn't take the easy way out, however; an pop music moves on the album are distinctly on their own wacked terms. "Eye Of Fatima Pt. 1" leads off with a crunchy guitar and tight uptempo rhythm; the surreal lyrics remain but have matured into something less coy, something more compelling. It's followed by "Eye Of fatima Pt. 2", which sounds like a throwback to their first tow albums, an eclectic instrumental notable for Segel's mandolin and Lisher's Led Zeppelin-eque guitarwork. "Never Go Back" is another psychedelic country number with Segel's keyboards providing the right touch and a fine group harmony. "She Divines Water" is violin-led and builds into a grand crescendo. Overall, the album is a constantly engaging collection of eclecticism that no longer runs naked through the woods, but is harnassed in the service of the whole. The album was their first to chart, peaking at #135
It also signalled what was to be an unfortunately abrupt end for the band. After the album's release, Segel left the band to pursue other projects. Brought in to replace him was violinist Morgan Fitcher. Her violin work is admirable, but she wasn't Segel; as the band's most versatile and experimental musician, Camoer van beethoven lost a major component of their sound. A side project of guitarists Greg Lisher, bassist Victor Krummenacher and drummer Chris Pedersen, plus touring guitarist David Immergluck, Monks of Doom, was gradually taking up more of their time.
Thus, when the band's final album, Key Lime Pie, appeared in 1989, it was the work of a band that had lost much of its momentum and direction. The miracle is that it's still a good record, even if its sound was more focused and streamlined than ever. Still, an effort was put into the album; Lowery's sense of humor returns, even as he's left with mostly rock grooves for his expression. Fortunately, Lisher's guitar has gotten even better, and his strange, moody, textured leads lend the album a space and atmosphere that leaves them on the cusp of 90's alternative rock, anticipating Lowerey's work with his next band, Cracker. The album is more melancholy than any of the others, right down to the morose backing vocals on "Jack Ruby". Status Quo's old psychedelic hit, "Pictures Of Matchstick Men", complete with violin, was a #1 hit on the Modern Rock Tracks Charts; the album itself peaked at #141.
After that, the band split up after a greuling European tour; they purposely played "The Ambiguity Song" as their farewell. Monks of Doom pursued their own career, but eventually disbanded in 1993. David Lowery founded Cracker, a much more straightforward alt-rock band that delivered the goods in solid hard rock style, but without the reckless adventure Camoer Van Beethoven embodied. Cracker would gain the sales Camper Van Beethoven failed to achieve; their sophomore album, Kerosene Hat, reached #59 on the charts and yeilded a big radio hit, "Low". In 1993, IRS released an album of b-sides and rarities, Camper Vantiquities, which coheres nearly as well as their IRS albums do, despite its array of styles and genres. It contains their versions of The Kinks' "I'm Not Like Evgerybody Else" and Ringo Starr's "Photograph".
In 1999, shortly after Carcker's final album release, Lowery met with former Camper Van Beethoven members Krummenacher and Segel to assemble their own rarities package, entitled Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead: Long Live Camper Van Beethoven; Tusk was given a formal release in 2002.
A big surprise came when the band reunited for a tour in 2002, the classic lineup restored. The tour went so well, that the band remained together for an album in 2004, New Roman Times. 16 years between releases is a long time, and the band's approach was a mature one, arguably for the first time ever. This robs the album of some of the old fun, but the genre excursions remain, and the band's chops have improved considerable in the intervening years; never did they sound so tight on record as they did here. The album is a vague concept of sorts, about a disillusioned military man who joins a militia; a great deal heavier than fans are accustomed to. However, they still find room for songs with titles like "That Gum You Like Is Back in Style", "Militia Song" is given an ironic folky arrangement with traditional fiddle. "Might Makes Right" has slow ska elements, and Steve Reich's musique concrete work from 1966 gets a recontextualizing in "Come On". While not a huge seller, the album did reach #38 on the Top Independant Albums chart.
Camper Van Beethoven appears to be making this reunion permanent, at least so far. The continue to play gigs, sometimes with Cracker in support, and maintain a website. One can only hope that this unique band, which gladdened the hearts of indie fans in the 80's who wanted something a little more compelling than punk or roots rock. For the uninitiated, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart is their most accessable disc, Telephone Landslide Victory, their most exhuberantly inspired. Cigarettes & Carrot Juice: The Santa Cruz Years is a generous retrospective of their IRS years, complete with unreleased rarities.
Weekly Artist overview usually appears on Mondays.
Listen to Camper Van Beethoven: Eye Of Fatima Pt. 1 (1988)