BY STEVE PICK
They just seemed so goddam confident on stage. Camper Van Beethoven knew they were good from the beginning, but by 1989, they carried themselves on stage as if they felt life would never be better than this. Part of it was the natural strut of frontman David Lowery, who has never seemed unsure of himself, but most of it was the sheer craft and emotional heft of the music. Camper Van Beethoven was a group of five musicians proudly converging into one perfectly tuned unit.
Except, to read the liner notes to the newly reissued (via Omnivore; www.omnivorerecordings.com) Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart from 1988 and the following year’s Key Lime Pie, and to remember how little time they had left as a band, they weren’t anything like in tune with each other. Violin player and co-focus on stage Jonathan Segel was gone shortly after the tour finished; David Lowery, bassist Victor Krummenacher, lead guitarist Greg Lisher, and drummer Chris Pedersen apparently had multiple ideas for the direction the music should go from there. A final album was cut with session violinists and a final tour was undertaken with a new member, Morgan Fichter, and it was all over.
In retrospect, it makes sense that a surplus of musical ideas would be way better than a surfeit of same. With every member of the band contributing to the songwriting together, there would be no single identifiable Camper Van Beethoven sound so much as there was a CVB attitude. Music could be fun and serious at the same time; the band would be without ego, even if in reality it took five egos fighting for their own spot in the sun to get there.
Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart was the fourth full-length CVB album, but the first for a major record label. As college radio seemed to be breaking more and more acts into either the big time (R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs) or at least a pretty solid run at mid-size prosperity (Husker Du, the Replacements), the major labels started snapping up the heroic underground acts of the late ‘80s. There was controversy in the fanzine scene of the time, but the bottom line was it became easier to find the music under the aegis of corporate distribution.
While Sweetheart had a few tweaks in the direction of radio-friendly sound (most notably the slightly bigger drum sound than before), it wasn’t a dramatically different record than Camper Van Beethoven had delivered in the previous year’s eponymous release. There were instrumentals and there were vocals, there were ironic views of historical figures and there were devastatingly direct statements of purpose. There were hints of eastern European influences as well as Appalachian folk; there were dynamically vibrant arrangements allowing each member of the band to shine without drawing attention away from the song itself.
Whether introducing ‘80s indie rockers to one of the oldest songs in the American folk repertoire, “O Death,” or finding inspiration in the tale of Patty Hearst’s experience with the Symbionese Liberation Army for “Tania”; whether creating a richly intoxicating pop confection suddenly exploding into musique concrete in “She Divines Water” or roaring a riff-laden heavy folkish instrumental called “Waka,” Camper Van Beethoven were clearly at the top of their game for Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.
Not that there was anything wrong with the subsequent Key Lime Pie. Fichter was almost as riveting onstage as Segel had been, and the concerts were every bit as intoxicating as they always were. According to the liner notes for both albums (written by long-time superfan Jill Stauffer, who is full of anecdotes and insight), the members of the band were no longer pointing in the same musical direction, and the music was darker than before.
Two superficially similar songs reveal the distance between these two albums. Both “Tania” from Sweetheart and “Jack Ruby” from Pie are based on real life events seen on television, both about people with guns. But “Tania” is light-hearted, albeit with a strong ironic distance from real feeling. There is no sense that what Patty Hearst did had consequences, no feeling that actual human actions took place. That familiar image of Hearst with a gun was seen as a relief from boredom, an achievement of the ultimate goal, the fifteen minutes of fame Warhol had promised. “Jack Ruby,” on the other hand, is about the nature of evil and our complicity with its effects. The good guys and bad guys mingle, the act of Ruby was to murder a murderer, and we cannot ultimately escape from implications of our actions or inactions. Sure, Hearst didn’t actually kill any one, but the SLA did, so her story has plenty of similar implications. They simply aren’t considered in that song.
None of this means Camper Van Beethoven wasn’t tackling serious issues before Pie. Taking the skinheads bowling was a crafty joke, but singing about “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac” was connecting the dots between dictators, fascists, and the general desire for order we all have inside us. There is, however, a dramatically different feel to the songs on Key Lime Pie, a sense that at least for now, hope is not on the table. At the time, Pie felt like a major breakthrough, but in retrospect, it’s doesn’t have as broad a range of musical treasures as the band usually provided.
Virgin Records obviously pumped more money into the band for Pie [not necessarily as regards the album artwork, however. -Cheapskate Ed.], as the sound is crisper, thicker, and clearer than on previous records. Segel is usually replaced by Don Lax, who does a good job while only rarely insinuating himself into the bones of the songs. He is more likely to merely color the music, though this could have been a conscious decision of the album’s producer, Dennis Herring. At any rate, the full throttle multi-part instrumental commentaries are much rarer behind Lowery’s vocals than they had been before.
Fichter came onboard for “Flowers” and most spectacularly, the definitive cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” which the band had been performing in concert for years. Camper Van Beethoven had never been afraid of cover material – they’d already released a countryish take on Black Flag’s “Wasted” and an exuberant take on Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.” It seems likely the record company pushed for “Matchstick Men” as a potential single for radio; it’s easily the hookiest cut on Key Lime Pie. But rather than just doing a straight version of an old rock song, the band turned in a masterful reimagination, with Fichter’s violin taking the catchy riff to new heights. There aren’t many covers which can be said to have replaced the original, but this one just might.
Both reissues are padded with multiple rarities and live cuts, including songs by the Damned, the Stranglers, and the Buzzcocks which clearly show Camper had roots in the emerging punk/New Wave scene before they were old enough to make their own kind of music. The remastering is terrific, opening up the music and letting it breath in ways the original CDs didn’t quite allow.
DOWNLOAD: “Tania,” “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” “She Divines Water,” “Eye of Fatima Pt. 1”