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Review: Two From Camper Van Beethoven and Omnivore Recordings

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Camper - Our BelovedAnd this here’s a government experiment and we’re driving like Hell
To give some cowboys some acid and to stay in motels
We’re going to eat up some wide open spaces like it was a cruise on the Nile
Take the hands off the clock, we’re going to be here a while

– Camper Van Beethoven, “Eye of Fatima (Pt. 1)”

You can take the band out of the underground, but you can’t take the underground out of the band.  California’s Camper Van Beethoven had been making its brand of “surrealist, absurdist folk” for roughly five years before garnering a major-label contract courtesy of Virgin Records in 1988.  Typically, many wondered if the result would be a watered-down version of what made the band successful in the first place.  But upon the release of Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, the words “sell out” were unlikely to cross the lips of all but the most cynical fans.  Both that landmark release and its 1989 follow-up Key Lime Pie have just been reissued by Omnivore Recordings in splendidly remastered, generously expanded deluxe editions.  These two packed reissues are manna for longtime fans and solid introductions for those who aren’t familiar with the CVB ouevre.

From D.I.Y. to the House That Richard Branson Built, Camper Van Beethoven maintained a core of musical integrity.  The five-piece group behind Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (Omnivore OVCD-69) – bassist Victor Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher, guitarist/vocalist David Lowery, drummer Chris Pedersen and strings/keys man Jonathan Segel – imbued the album with a joyfully schizophrenic tone and the defiantly “alternative” sound of Segel’s fiddle.

“How can I believe that everything in this world is going to be fine? /How can I believe that everything in this world has its place and time?,” Lowery asks on “She Divines Water.”  The false rhyme notwithstanding, it’s an arresting opening couplet, and certainly reflected the questions of many listening in the year that George H.W. Bush seemed poised to continue the Reagan Era.  Although there’s an anything-goes sense of possibility that permeates the album, there’s also an undercurrent of darkness.  The mordant “tribute” to titular “revolutionary sweetheart” Patty Hearst and the cult of celebrity, “Tania,” is wryly humorous: “How I long for the days when you came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around/From the hours between five and seven in the evening…”

The quirky, irreverent, oblique and subversive lyrics throughout the LP are aided by the band’s varied musical settings, with one element rarely detracting from the other.  Following the hypnotic “Devil Song,” “One of These Days” surprises simply by not being too surprising.  The relatively straightforward track makes the most of its familiar title previously employed by the likes of Pink Floyd, Mose Allison, Paul McCartney, Lou Reed and Barry Manilow (!) and boasts a strong radio-friendly gloss.  Pop harmonies enliven “Never Go Back” following its bleak, carnival-esque introduction, and Camper is at its most punk on the frenetic, aburdist “My Path Belated” and boisterous “Turquoise Jewelry.”  A woozy brass arrangement punctuates the loping “Change Your Mind.”  Instrumental tracks stand shoulder to shoulder with the vocal performances, such as Part II of “Eye of Fatima,” the heavy “Waka” and the atmospheric, film soundtrack-esque “The Fool.”  The witty address that concludes the album (“And life is grand/And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor/With those of you who have appointed yourself to expect us to say something darker…”) showed a band completely unafraid to defy expectations…whatever your expectations were.

Reissue producer and designer Greg Allen has added a clutch of bonus tracks culled from singles and previously unissued live performances circa 1988 from Toad’s Place in New Haven, CT and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, MA.  There are numerous treats here, including covers of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (“Wade in the Water”) and Paul Simon (“Kodachrome” with a clever twist of Ringo Starr’s “Photograph”).  On the latter, David Lowery’s disaffected lead voice makes for an ironic contrast to Paul Simon’s knowing choirboy vocals on the original.

After the jump: a slice of Key Lime Pie and more!

Camper - Key Lime PieYet despite the pronouncement at the close of Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart that “Life Is Grand,” all wasn’t grand in Camper Van Beethoven.  Founding member Segel had departed, and was replaced on violin by Don Lax and Morgan Fichter.  The band’s sophomore Virgin release, Key Lime Pie (OVCD-70), reflected a seemingly darker worldview.  It’s hard to get much darker than the first vocal, a song about “Jack Ruby” (“He seems like the kind of man who beats his horses/Or the dancers who work at a bar,” Lowery dryly intones).  Yet the song is squarely in CVB’s impressionistic lyrical territory, aided by a tense, ominous melody.  But Key Lime Pie does get even heavier.  The second track on the album, “Sweethearts,” begins “at the fountain at the five and dime” (the kind of establishment that might serve the titular dessert, no?) but the track quickly reveals its intention as a scathing indictment of the policies and outlook of former President Reagan – set to an ironically upbeat, jangly pop melody.

Social commentary is prevalent in the moody, intelligent rock of Key Lime Pie, including on “When I Win the Lottery.”  The protagonist’s goals aren’t necessarily praiseworthy (“Gonna donate half my money to the city/So they have to name a street or school or park after me”) but, in a move worthy of Randy Newman, the band trenchantly adds, “But I never killed someone I don’t know just ‘cause someone told me to…”  Like “When I Win the Lottery,” both “(I Was Born in a) Laundromat” and “Borderline” continue the band’s explorations of lost souls on the fringes (“On the borderline, everything is empty…even you and I…”).  The stylistic variety from the first album, however, remains with each cut here.

Sadness, too, comes to the fore Key Lime Pie, as on the acid “June” (“There is nothing in the world more bitter than love/In all those long days of June…”) with its closing cacophony and pulse that might well be the sound of Lowery’s heart breaking.  On “All Her Favourite Fruit,” Camper is at its most idiosyncratic, even working “fecundity” into the lyrics.  Lowery and co. take the idea of fecundity a step further, however, with the surreal “Flowers” and “The Humid Press of Days” – no, Key Lime Pie is not a light album!  Only “Pictures of Matchstick Men” offers a balm in the form of its familiarity, and Camper breathed new life into the psychedelic Status Quo oldie as they stripped it down and added prominent violin.

The album – and, sadly, this era of Camper Van Beethoven – ended with the taunt to “Come On Darkness” (“Let me breathe you in/’Cause with this clattering and din/We are calling you.”).  Omnivore’s reissue, though, doesn’t end on that note, but instead adds nine rare tracks to flesh out the Key Lime Pie story.  These include non-LP single sides, edits, previously unissued demos and never-before-heard live material.  Take a listen to the muscular “Closing Theme” back-to-back with the demo of the instrumental “Country 2” and the European-flavored “L’Aguardiente” to put the band’s true versatility into sharp focus.  Four songs shine from a 1989 Universal City gig, including the biting and still-timely “Good Guys and Bad Guys” and the utterly delightful Porter and Dolly throwback “Before I Met You.”

Jill Stauffer supplies the intriguing, informative, and rather academic liner notes (with references to Nietzsche and Camus, natch!) to both titles, while producer Allen has handsomely designed both reissues in digipaks with thick booklets containing images of the band and related memorabilia.  Ron McMaster has remastered both albums superbly.  Camper Van Beethoven may have never achieved the commercial success that so many felt they richly deserved, but their creative, boundary-breaking (alt- or art-) rock has never been presented better than on Omnivore’s affectionately-curated reissues.

You can order Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!

You can order Key Lime Pie at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!

Written by Joe Marchese

February 11, 2014 at 10:33

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, News, Reissues, Reviews

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