I wanted to like this album. I really did. I was never a huge fan of Camper Van Beethoven, but I definitely enjoyed their music and was kind of bummed when they split in 1990. Not even David Lowry’s return with Cracker could ever reach the pinnacle of “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” Plus, the idea of some improvisational guitar genius with ‘70s radical creds teamed up with the Camper Van boys seemed like a cool idea.
After pulling Used Record Pile from my CD player, I gave pause to think about how old adages and phrases only ever come into being through some degree of ultimate truth. This time, the phrase is: “It seemed like a good idea on paper.” How can I characterize this record? Dissonance? Noise music? Nothing I can come up with can explain how grating and irritating some of the songs on this disc are. It’s similar to the cacophony of an orchestra tuning their instruments all at once before the start of a big performance. With vocals.
Eugene Chadbourne, the aforementioned supposed genius, wrote these tunes, with the exception of a few covers, and to his credit I can see how some people are charmed by the social commentary and overtly political lyrics. Songs like “Evil Filthy Preacher” and “Ollie’s Playhouse” (this being Ollie North and sung to the tune of the PeeWee’s Playhouse theme) have a sharp and funny edge to them that might work if there was something listenable in the music that backs them up. The fact that Chadbourne is commonly compared to Frank Zappa is hardly surprising, nor the fact that they do a tune called “Zappa Medley.” But even the Mothers of Invention were more musical than this.
To top it off, the recording quality of the disc is flat out terrible. Apparently this collection of songs is gathered together from three albums of previous material and some unreleased tracks all recorded in the period from 1987-1991. Thank god that this may mean there isn’t more forthcoming material out of this “group.” And maybe it’s the fact that some of this stuff is more than 10 years old, but I had to crank up the volume on my stereo just to hear the lyrics, well beyond the tolerable limits of volume for which to play the random notes and noises that make up CVC’s songs. Plus, the disc confused the track listing on my CD player. Of the 16 songs on the disc only eight showed up on the display. I wouldn’t mind this if it didn’t mean that I couldn’t skip the really, really bad tracks.
Who’s this album for? People who like their folk music stripped of tonality, consisting of “jams” that are nothing more than instruments thrust together in whatever combination the musicians think will sound the most like cats howling.