It’s a fact unacknowledged by even some of popular music’s leading taste-arbiters, but Jonathan Segel‘s old band, Camper Van Beethoven, was one of the very finest of their era, charting out a magnificently weird course through a college radio world full of equal parts innovation and non-conformist conformity. Stirring together just about any influence they saw fit, Camper managed to make their patchwork sound fly in such glorious fashion that they went almost largely unappreciated save for their classic, “Take the Skinheads Bowling”. When the group was booed opening for R.E.M. in 1986, bassist Victor Krummenacher pleaded to the audience, “Aw, come on, my mom was on the space shuttle”. Such subversive humor was usually credited to frontman David Lowery, but songwriting credits were spread equally among band members, and even if they weren’t, it would be hard not to suspect multi-instrumentalist Segel of being the John Cale of Camper—stuck at the back, maybe, but a key sonic architect nonetheless.
Like Cale, Segel took a chunk of the experimental edge along with him when he departed the band following 1988’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, their first effort on a major label. It was about the time when the band started growing up and becoming less risky, so conventional wisdom holds that Segel was the wild-eyed revolutionary while Lowery was a stick in the mud, ironing out the band’s wrinkles until there was nothing left to do but form a more conducive group. That group was Cracker, of course, and their mainstream success set the stage for Segel to become the cult hero keeping the best of the CVB legacy alive. Sadly, that never happened. He’s kept busy, releasing records under the Hieronymus Firebrain name and playing with Monks of Doom, Eugene Chadbourne, Jack and Jill, and the Young Fresh Fellows as well as joining up with Lowery & Co. for a surprising and completely excellent reunion tour. These shows were greeted with the laurels the band has always deserved, so it’s understandable that the band members were revitalized, separately releasing a spate of records.
In 2003, two of those releases were by Segel, both coming out on the same day. Non-Linear Accelerator was designed to showcase Segel’s electronic chops while Edgy Not Antsy functions as a bouquet of ear-catching melodies. And no, that last sentence is not merely an idle Todd Rundgren reference to display my horde of useless information. Edgy Not Antsy bears a nifty resemblance to Something/Anything?, managing to be as intellectually stimulating as it is catchy while sounding like the product of a lone, quirky brain. Unlike Rundgren, Segel doesn’t quite play all the parts, leaving room for Camper buddies Krummenmacher and Greg Lisher, as well as for the hired help playing sundry other instruments that few pop musicians other than Stevie Wonder could wrangle. Few of the resulting songs would sound out of place on a Camper record, and the feel of the album combined with Segel’s twisted songwriting makes Edgy Not Antsy sound like that band’s underrated Key Lime Pie if only Segel had run the show instead of running out on it.
All comparisons aside, Edgy is a superb release on its own merits, and it’s made all the more so by many of his peers’ status as has-beens. Other than a misstep or two (the humor of “World of Suckers” drowns in smarminess), the songs are thoughtfully arranged, well-played, and overflowing with the irreverent brilliance Segel helped introduce to the world in 1985. His voice lacks some of the oddball charm of Lowery’s, but that’s a difficult standard for anyone to live up to, and once the inevitable comparisons to the band that made him quasi-famous have run their course, Edgy Not Antsy stands as a comeback that doesn’t even need the overdose of sympathy fans normally have to apply to late period efforts of their favorite artists. For once, I can say with a straight face: he’s back and he’s still got it!
// Notes from the Road
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