The Beginning of the End
Let me take you way, way back. Pretend that it is the early to mid-‘80s and you’re living in California. You want to start a band. Around you, is a whole scene based on hardcore punk. Black Flag. Circle Jerks. That sort of thing. However, what you really don’t want to do is play hardcore punk. What you want to do is tap into the hardcore ethos of DIY, as well as do things your own way. What do you do? Well, if you’re Camper Van Beethoven, you get a smartass frontman and lyricist in the form of David Lowery, you hire a violin player in the form of Jonathan Segel, and, while you dip your toe into punk by covering Black Flag’s “Wasted”, you also become known for slipping in the occasional Russian folk song into your set list. This is, of course, the origin story of one of the ‘80s most beloved alternative rock bands, said band up for review here, but let me take you on a little later in the band’s discography. After releasing three very well received independent records in a span of roughly 18 months, where do you go? If you’re Camper Van Beethoven, you sign to a major label—Virgin Records, in this case. But, if the results of that period are any indication, you don’t sell out. At least, not really. Rather, you streamline your sound into something a little more mainstream without getting rid of all of those oddball elements that made you so endearing in the first place, for the large part – at least, in the case of 1988’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, said major label debut. Things would get a little darker later on, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves now.
Los Angeles-based archival label Omnivore Recordings is re-releasing the final two Camper Van Beethoven albums; at least, final in the sense of the word “initially” as the group would eventually reconvene once again a decade later and make albums. These two Virgin-era discs are a relative eye-opener for those who passed over the alternative rock boom of the late ‘80s. And while David Lowery would have greater commercial success with the band Cracker in the 1990s and band member David Immerglück would (ick!) join the Counting Crows, both the albums up for grabs here – the aforementioned Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and 1989’s Key Lime Pie – mark high water for anyone associated with the group. Both albums sound as revelatory and revolutionary as they did back in the day and both make the case as being overlooked gems, though they couldn’t be more different and polar from each other in some respects. Still, there’s some great music to be had in these two sets, and no collection of late ‘80s alterna-rock is complete without them.
If there were any hues and cries of sell out once the band signed with Virgin in 1987, those feelings were more or less dashed by the time Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart dropped. The first three songs set up the band’s modus operandi on this outing: there’s a pop song, an instrumental and a cover of a bluegrass standard. Clearly, the band hadn’t lost any of its capacity to surprise, just on the basis of how they started the record. However, the album is noteworthy for being chock-a-bloc with a whirlwind of different styles of music, without sacrificing any shred of musicality. “She Divines Water” is giddily infectious, being one of the band’s best and more earworm worthy songs in their entire catalogue. The ska-esque “One of These Days” is additionally grand. The countrified “Turquoise Jewelry” is another highlight amongst an album of highlights. And closing number “Life Is Grand” is just another example of how the group was able to write a catchy gem of a song. Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart ranks among the group’s best albums, in spite of the fact that it is one of multiple personalities and styles, which include everything from folk to country to ska to psychedelia and back again, stewed into the mix. The songs themselves, however, trump any of the album’s eccentricities. Clearly, this is one of the outstanding records of the late 1980s.
Follow-up Key Lime Pie, on the other hand, is the sound of a band beginning to break up, being bleaker, more rock-based and monochromatic. Indeed, Segel would be swapped out for female violinist Morgan Fichter, though most of the work done on the album was by Don Lax. And much hay could be made from “Life Is Grand”‘s line on the previous record: “those of you who have appointed yourselves to expect us to say something darker.” Key Lime Pie is, indeed, the darker album. However, it is only slightly less infectious than Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. Though the sequencing of songs here is a little more on the wonky side, there are memorable cuts throughout, such as second track “Jack Ruby”, a brooding number about the man who shot the man who shot JFK. And Key Lime Pie somewhat ups the country and folk influences, such as on “When I Win the Lottery”, there’s a certain forward-looking Britpop-esque sensibility to “(I Was Born In a) Laundromat” – listen to it without thinking of Blur, I dare you. The lilting “June” is another worthy addition to the band’s pantheon. However, it is their cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men”, the group’s big MTV hit back in the day, that gets buns a movin’, and is a much needed respite from the album’s darker themes. In fact, the song fits into the group’s output so well that my worn copy of Rock: the Rough Guide erroneously credits Camper Van Beethoven as being the song’s originator. While the group would break up not long after its recording, Key Lime Pie is still an impressive outing from a more than impressive band.
What makes the reissues of these two albums more than appealing is the wealth of bonus tracks that pepper each release: outtakes and live cuts. Here, listeners can get an appreciation for the band’s origins, as live material from the outfit’s first three indie albums are included, such as “Take the Skinheads Bowling” (arguably the band’s signature song), “The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon” and “Seven Languages”, the latter of which offers a slight deviation in the original’s lyrics. The fidelity of sound is a bit hissy here, owing to the probable status of these recordings as soundboard-based, but the wit and temperament of the group cuts through. As well, there are run-throughs of covers, such as Black Flag’s “Wasted” (which, naturally, originally appeared on Camper Van Beethoven’s first album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory), Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” and the Damned’s “Smash It Up” – showing just how versatile the band was to take a variety of punk and pop influences and puree them in their own sonic blender.
Overall, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie helped open the floodgates of ‘90s alternative rock, something that only Lowery would really benefit from being in Cracker at that point in time. Hearing these records all over again makes one a little circumspect, and sad that the group wasn’t able to really crack the mainstream, cover of “Pictures of Matchstick Men” be damned. For that reason, both albums are worth owning – they haven’t diminished in stature a bit, and, in the case of Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, offer an appealing sense of joyousness and infectiousness. Plus, the addition of bonus material (at least, on the CD versions) just accentuates the necessary nature of both releases. Both Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and, to a lesser extent, Key Lime Pie are worthy additions to any serious scholar’s appreciation of pre-Seattle underground/college rock. And, if anything, they invite the listener to want to troll even earlier through the band’s back catalogue, if one hasn’t done so already. Robust and complete, both of these reissues are a welcome reminder that you didn’t have to be punk to be a punk in 1980s California. All you needed was a way around a good folk song or two, and were willing to have someone play the violin, and you were pretty much all set.
Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart
Key Lime Pie