Camper Van Beethoven: Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty

Popular is a point of debate, but the best picks from the legendary indie slacker outfit's catalogue still spreads strength and beauty across college radio stations to this day.

Camper Van Beethoven

Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty

Label: Cooking Vinyl
US Release Date: 2008-06-24
UK Release Date: 2008-06-23

Allow me to boil a solid decade down to a couple sentences. Around the time of the UK's late '70s and early '80s DIY post-punk movement, where the likes of Josef K, Orange Juice, and Joy Division solidified the underground as a source or relevance and modest commercial success outside of the major labels, the US was forming their own RIAA-raiding Trojan horse. Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys, the Misfits, and their cohorts launched the American hardcore movement in the shadow of the Ramones, while the likes of Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, and Big Black kindled "alternative rock" in preparation for Nirvana to forever change the meaning of the term (followed up by a sleight of flimsy, same-sounding Nickelhack bands after Kurt's demise, but pop will eat itself, they say). Like so many innovators, California's Camper Van Beethoven didn't really operate within a scene, per se, but their addition to what would become the modern running definition of "indie rock" cannot be understated. Actually, I suppose it has been understated, hence the tone of this opening paragraph. Upon further investigation, I'm sure you'd agree that such oversight is due for change.

While the '80s Billboard charts were smeared with synth-pop and hair metal, Camper Van Beethoven walked an utterly unique path through the fields of ska, punk, psychedelia, Eastern European folk, and country overlaid with often absurdist lyrics in a Frank Zappa vein. They immediately became college radio mainstays on the back of minor hits like "Good Guys & Bad Girls" and "Take the Skinheads Bowling", a song revived and sent spinning in high rotation after a Teenage Fanclub cover made the soundtrack to Michael Moore's weapons sensibility-themed opinion piece Bowling for Columbine. Especially with their first three self-released records in the mid-'80s, CVB helped deflect underground currents from the new wave towards much older influences without sounding yearningly, anachronistically nostalgic. Laying their influences on out in the open, Camper Van Beethoven's quiet revolution helped pave the way for the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel and Arcade Fire to enjoy their sweeping success.

In part a celebration of their 25th anniversary, Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty is the first career retrospective enjoyed by the band. It's not really for fans, though. Unlike just about every major label artist for the past decade, this compilation is not padded with a couple of superfluous new songs to screw over completists. That essentially renders the fact that five songs from the band's two Virgin records had to be re-recorded for this release a moot point of possible note. With the original line-up reunited, these re-recordings were undertaken with such painstaking accuracy that they are virtually identical, with slightly glossier production and the more mature voice of power animal David Lowery being your only clues. Plus, when you think about it, retaining the publishing rights for the Virgin material and re-releasing it with Cooking Vinyl reclaims it as born-again indie, while thankfully cutting off Virgin's gravy train. Integrity? They've got some to spare.

"Opie Rides Again/Club Med Sucks" will immediately impress those new to the Camper Van Beethoven experience. Being dragged through a pokey country intro to then land on a dissonant, guitar-heavy post-rock groove, and finally a ripping punk chorus with the line "Club Med sucks / Authority sucks / I hate golf" creates a lasting impression. Underneath the violin of Jonathan Segal, which eventually takes the role of lead vocal, "ZZ Top Goes to Egypt" is a '70s hard rock jam with a faint outro similar to the intro for Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady". Those two are both instant pleasers.

The re-recorded "When I Win the Lottery" still rings true, with a bittersweet Charlie Daniels Band vibe supporting musings of hope from an unsavory character. His dreams are a mix of ego and charity, toeing the line aptly enough to make him likable. Also re-recorded, their cover of Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men" still counts as one of their finest moments, while clearly betraying their psychedelic infatuation. Unless you listen to them back to back with the Virgin versions, it's doubtful you'd notice or care about any sonic differences.

With selections grabbed from across their early career from 1985-1989, Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty is about the best introduction to these Californians you could ask for. Sweetening the pot, the fact that they've managed to cut out the RIAA altogether asserts their commitment to true independent music in spirit and practice. I'm sure you'll find it as shocking as I do that Camper Van Beethoven never got the respect granted to the likes of Sonic Youth. Most fans will already have the essential Santa Cruz Years box set, and probably the two majors, if not their 2004 return and the 2002 cover album of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. For those beyond mixtapes -- and, since The New York Times already marked the passing of the audiocassette, there are many -- now is the time to stocking-stuffer these magnificent bastards to the notoriety they deserve. History is what we make of it today.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.