CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: TELEPHONE FREE LANDSLIDE VICTORY (1985)
1) The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon; 2) Border Ska; 3) Wasted; 4) Yanqui Go Home; 5) Oh No!; 6) Nine Of Disks; 7) Payed Vacation: Greece; 8) Where The Hell Is Bill?; 9*) Wasting All Your Time; 10*) Epigram #5; 11*) At Kuda; 12*) Epigram #2; 13*) Cowboys From Hollywood; 14*) Colonel Enrique Adolfo Bermudez; 15) Vladivostock; 16) Skinhead Stomp; 17) Tina; 18) Take The Skinheads Bowling; 19) Mao Reminisces About His Days In Southern China; 20) I Don't See You; 21) Balalaika Gap; 23) Opi Rides Again; 24) Club Med Sucks; 25) Ambiguity Song.
Those unfortunate (or fortunate) souls whose youth was not spent in Eighties' America would probably, in retrospect, think of «college rock» as represented by either leftist hardcore bands or leftist folk-rock bands (of the more subtle variety, like R.E.M., or of the more straightforward one, like 10,000 Maniacs). As one begins digging a little deeper, though, all sorts of oddities begin to come out — including acts that are fairly hard to categorize, since one of their intentions was to avoid becoming easily pigeonholed, at all costs. And among such acts, few can boast a higher level of oddball-ness than the oddball-some-titled Camper Van Beethoven (originally — Camper Van Beethoven and The Border Patrol), founded by a bunch of eccentric Californians with guitar player and singer David Lowery at the core center.
Unlike the abrasive, avantgarde-influenced young noisemakers dominating the underground, Camper Van Beethoven did not seem to care much about pushing forward musical boundaries (being largely content with however wide they'd already been pushed) or about making their music as basically «inaccessible» and «unlistenable» as possible. With minimal exceptions (only a tiny handful of these tracks experiment with dissonance, e. g. ʽNine Of Disksʼ), all the music on this album is well within certain established traditions — Camper Van Beethoven like various forms of pop, punk, punk-pop, pop-punk, and country-western, though their major love spot is reserved for the venerable musical form of ska (or polka, if you'd rather like an Eastern rather than Western hemisphere analogy, although Campers don't exactly huddle the accordeon).
The ska-based tracks on the band's debut largely seem to function as instrumental interludes — but do not make the mistake of writing them off as insignificant, because if there's anything truly exciting and original about Camper's musical agenda, most of it is concealed in these instrumentals. With two guitarists and a talented multi-instrumentalist (Jonathan Segel on violin, mandolin, and various keyboards) involved, they present humorous and inventive twists on just about every musical genre that ends up on the roulette wheel. Beginning fairly innocently with some pop electric guitar on ʽBorder Skaʼ; they follow it up with a country twist on ʽYanqui Go Homeʼ; go Near Eastern on ʽAt Kudaʼ; zip into Mexico for ʽColonel Enrique Adolfo Bermudezʼ (there are some spoken vocals on that one, but it falls in the same ska-based category); try to summon a Russian vibe — in my opinion, somewhat unsuccessfully — on ʽVladivostockʼ; later try to do it again, with slightly more satisfactory results, on ʽBalalaika Gapʼ (that's a mandolin, though, hardly an authentic balalaika); and reach an absolute climactic peak on ʽMao Reminisces About His Days In Southern Chinaʼ — a less smart band would probably just slap a title like this onto any random piece of improvised shit, but the Campers actually make an effort to play a doubled guitar/violin melody that is reminiscent of a Chinese folk melody. It's catchy, it's funny, and, strangest of all, it is actually touching in some way — I'm still trying to figure out why, though.
It would be very easy to just write off this «jamaicaization» of various music genres as a cheap gimmick, and I cannot, in fact, exclude that, given the band's general penchant for satire and irony, all of this was essentially performed as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the «world music» scene that was shaping up in the mid-Eighties. But there's too much thought and genuine feeling behind it all to reduce all the spectrum to just humor and parody — you might as well say that the band breathes new life in these clichéd old genres by grafting them onto an ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ kind of stock. And although there is not a lot of complexity involved, the performances are surprisingly diligent and well-rehearsed: these guys took the DIY ethics seriously — if you really have to do it yourself, you might as well do it fuckin' good.
In between all the instrumental fun, you have the actual songs — also with a fairly wide range, though not nearly as all-encompassing as the ska bits. As could be expected, most of these are written in an absurdist paradigm, but not a particularly nonsensical or dadaist one: this is an American band, and the situations they invent are more Saturday Night Live than Monty Python, be it Lassie's self-sacrificing journey to outer space (ʽThe Day That Lassie Went To The Moonʼ), the brainless spasms of youth rebellion (ʽClub Med Sucksʼ), or lazy indignation at the absence of a band member for the rehearsals (ʽWhere The Hell Is Bill?ʼ, referring to the original drummer Bill McDonald, who actually left way before these sessions even started — "maybe he went to see The Circle Jerks!"). Musically, they sound strangely more rugged and amateurish than the ska pieces — almost as if this were a completely different band playing at times — but no less odd, particularly when they cover Black Flag's fifty-second hardcore classic ʽWastedʼ as a slow roots-rock number with a prominent fiddle part; and the best of these tunes also happen to be insanely catchy and even uplifting — ʽTake The Skinheads Bowlingʼ is rightfully considered a classic not because it deals with skinheads, but because it is a terrific piece of jangle-pop, and once again, Segel's violin work is highly commendable.
Things are neatly tied together with the closing number, ʽAmbiguity Songʼ, something that would not sound out of place at your local hoedown, but whose main point is to deliver, in condensed form, the main message of the entire album: "Everything seems to be up in the air at this time / One day soon, it'll all settle down / But everything seems to be up in the air at this time" — delivered in an ever so slightly worried, but ultimately calm and ironic fashion. All the more ironic, that is, considering how it was all baked way back in 1985, yet still seems so relevant at the end of the distantly futuristic 2016: the album sounds every bit as charming now as it did back then, and I am absurdly happy to render a well-deserved thumbs up verdict.
(Technical note: the 24-track CD issue of the album is actually much longer than the original due to the insertion in its middle of the entire contents of the contemporary EP Take The Skinheads Bowling, including an early version of the classic ʽCowboys From Hollywoodʼ. Another technical note is that the album itself was supposed to be named Telephone Tree Landslide Victory, but apparently the label guys messed up and got Free instead of Tree — which, in my as well as the band's opinion, actually improves on the original proposition.)