CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN (1986)
1) Good Guys & Bad Guys; 2) Joe Stalin's Cadillac; 3) Five Sticks; 4) Lulu Land; 5) Une Fois; 6) We Saw Jerry's Daughter; 7) Surprise Truck; 8) Stairway To Heavan (Sic); 9) The History Of Utah; 10) Still Wishing To Course; 11) We Love You; 12) Hoe Yourself Down; 13) Peace & Love; 14) Folly; 15) Interstellar Overdrive; 16) Shut Us Down.
On their third album, Camper Van Beethoven continue to «normalize» their sound, in this particular case, «normalization» being the equivalent of showing how much they love rock music from the late Sixties and early Seventies (and hey, who doesn't? Oh, okay, today some people don't, but what else could those intelligent college-rock kids from the Eighties choose as the main source of inspiration? Barry White?). More often than not, the inspiration is indirect: for instance, they take Led Zep-based song titles (ʽFive Sticksʼ, ʽStairway To Heavanʼ) and use them for psychedelic freakouts — the former is ʽThe Ambiguity Songʼ backwards, the latter is ʽChairman Maoʼ backwards (and somehow not completely losing its original charm in the process). Or, for instance, they express their reverence for the Grateful Dead by poking gentle fun at Deadheads (ʽWe Saw Jerry's Daughterʼ, which, incidentally, is also one of the album's fastest and catchiest pop numbers — although it doesn't sound much like a Grateful Dead song at all).
But just so you know that you can never properly predict the Campers' next move, they go out on a limb and introduce a faithful, as-note-for-note-as-possible rendition of Pink Floyd's ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ — somewhat stripped down compared to the original, but still with tremendous attention to detail. Needless to say, a cover like that really only works in the context of the album: it adds nothing to the classic ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ experience, but it matters all the world to us that it is done here by the same guys who, in their regular hours, produce sarcastic deconstructions of all the musical genres in the world.
There is also more emphasis on the lyrical message and the surrealist stories behind the music, fortunately, not at the expense of musical ideas. ʽGood Guys & Bad Guysʼ and ʽJoe Stalin's Cadillacʼ start things off with some political flavor — the former addresses the Russian issue from the point of view of an easy-going redneck (or college dropout, whatever) lazily basking in the sun, and the latter somehow jabs and stabs at all the dictatorial powers in the world, though I am still not exactly sure how; I guess that "Well my cadillac is Johnson's cadillac, is Stalin's cadillac, is Somoza's cadillac..." implies that dictators only become dictators because we allow them to, but then again, maybe it does not imply anything at all, and the whole thing is just an excuse for some reckless boogie fun. (And again, there's a completely ad hoc Led Zeppelin reference at the end of the song — purely by association, led on by the word "bridge" in the line "gonna drive my cadillac off a bridge". What do you think when you hear the word "bridge"? You must not be a true Led Zep fan if you think something different).
On a slighter note, ʽThe History Of Utahʼ tackles you-know-what, presenting a very alternative history of the establishment of the Church of Latter-day Saints to the sound of a droning psycho-boogie with a penchant for abrupt tempo changes; and ʽWe Love Youʼ is a variation on ʽThe Devil Went Down To Georgiaʼ, with a notable change in the theme (the Devil becomes a member of the band rather than taking the souls of its members). Still, both songs do reflect certain problems that the band members seem to have with religious practices — and their irreverence extends even to the very psychedelia that seems to fuel this record (ʽLulu Landʼ, a parody on the mind-opening, transcendental nature of flower power era psychedelic anthems).
On the whole, though, as fun as the record is on a first-come, first-serve basis, the remaining impression is, well, not quite as impressive as before. Too many of the songs just sound like jokes, made tastier through the factor of unpredictability — but jokes all the same. As far as actual songs are concerned, ʽGood Guys & Bad Guysʼ is arguably the only number here that qualifies: everything else is either a parody, or a brief freakout, or a passable, but straightforward genre experiment (ʽHoe Yourself Downʼ sure sounds good, but its meaning here is only gained in the context of other songs — normally, if you want this type of fast country dance by itself, you go to Nashville, don't you?), or, well, ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ. Still a thumbs up, of course, but I find myself pining for all those ska instrumentals.