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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Camper Van Beethoven: II & III

CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: II & III (1986)

1) Abundance; 2) Cowboys From Hollywood; 3) Sad Lovers' Waltz; 4) Turtlehead; 5) I Love Her All The Time; 6) No Flies On Us; 7) Down And Out; 8) No Krugerrands For David; 9) (Don't You Go To) Goleta; 10) 4 Year Plan; 11) (We're A) Bad Trip; 12) Circles; 13) Dustpan; 14) Sometimes; 15) Chain Of Circumstance; 16) ZZ Top Goes To Egypt; 17) Cattle (Reversed); 18) Form Another Stone; 19) No More Bullshit.

The title of this album is first and foremost intended to look cool, but also reflects some objective truth, considering that about half of it was recorded while drummer Anthony Guess was still in the band (and new guitarist Greg Lisher had just joined), and the other half was made after the drummer's departure, with Molla and Lowery splitting the drum work between themselves (per­manent replacement Chris Pedersen only arrived in time to record one track, the rough garage-rocker ʽ(We're A) Bad Tripʼ).

In all honesty, though, Camper Van Beethoven is more about the collective spirit than individual personalities, and we are not going to be seriously tracing all the complicated comings and goings here — the only thing that matters is whether they affect that spirit or not, and II & III, by all accounts, remains unaffected. Not that it sounds like a copy of the debut: on the contrary, there are some serious changes made, as the band largely abandons the «remake everything as a ska groove» principle, and branches out into additional directions; anything goes, as long as it's got good rhythm and as long as you can put a slightly weird spin on it.

The only problem is that this time around, there's no seeming conceptual unity to the recordings at all — all you can do is fondly enjoy its light-hearted attitude and fish out occasional moments of musical brilliance. Two songs only go for some sort of social message, one of them doing so brilliantly (the abovementioned ʽBad Tripʼ, a sneering putdown of those who "live such bright and flashing lives" with top-notch energy and a classic neo-garage riff) and the other not so bril­liantly (ʽNo More Bullshitʼ — a last-minute outburst of sloganeering is not going to save the day, even if you happen to agree with the song's sentiments such as "no more MTV, no more rock stars... Elvis Presley died and no one knows why!"; musically, the song sounds like somebody took a sonic experiment off Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and normalized it — well, okay, but it does not agree so perfectly with the verbal message). The rest is a smorgasbord of pop, folk, country, psychedelia, punk, and yes, just a little bit of ska... actually, more of a Slavo­nic dance, as corroborated by its prominent «mandolaika» lead part and the telling title ʽ4 Year Planʼ (I guess 5-year plans were too much to handle for a band with this much impatience).

Again, though, the most musically brilliant pieces are those instrumentals on which Segel's violin gets top billing — ʽNo Krugerrands For Davidʼ is a mad send-up of Jewish dance music, but my personal favorite is ʽZZ Top Goes To Egyptʼ, where near-Eastern violin lines are psychedelically spiced up with echo effects and placed on top of a bluesy vamp that, honestly, does not sound much like ZZ Top, but then I'm not really sure who the hell it sounds like, so might as well be ZZ Top. Other instrumentals are not nearly as interesting; for instance, ʽDustpanʼ is sort of what you'd expect a basic punk-rock song to sound like if the chainsaw buzz was replaced with bursts of acoustic jangle — an idea that seems intriguing in theory, but turns out boring in practice. How­ever, check out the excellent ʽTurtleheadʼ: seventy-five seconds of a crazyass country-punk-noise hybrid with unexpected time, tone, and mood shifts around every corner, a track that even ends up having a distinctly King Crimson-ian feel to it while it lasts.

Of the remaining vocal numbers, Sonic Youth's ʽI Love Her All The Timeʼ, remade as a rollickin' bluegrass number, deserves some attention for the novelty factor; ʽChain Of Circumstanceʼ is an attempt at twee-pop, ruined by bad vocals; and ʽForm Another Stoneʼ might be an overlooked psychedelic masterpiece from these guys — parodic as it is, the violin parts, laced with echo and phasing effects, wind themselves around the guitar jangle in a decidedly mind-blowing fashion. But even so, brilliance and senselessness go hand in hand on the album: for every winner, there's a relative loser, and overall, a bit of quality control probably wouldn't hurt. I appreciate, for in­stance, that the violin on ʽSad Lovers' Waltzʼ occasionally ends up reproducing the violin lines on the Beatles' ʽDon't Pass Me Byʼ, but the song as a whole does nothing for me, either as a sincere country number or as parody, whatever.

In short, II & III might as well be subtitled The Brilliant & The Pointless, a record that, far more so than the debut, highlights the band's virtues and flaws. Listening to this, you get the feeling that they could have easily done a great «serious» album in some sort of country-punk style — but chose the humble-pretentious path of self-deflation and reckless branching out with no particular place to go instead. If they were the Beatles and this was their White Album, they might get away with it, but I'll still take ʽWild Honey Pieʼ over ʽDustpanʼ, because the art of painting evocative musical pictures with musical trifles is a dang hard art to do well, and Camper Van Beethoven do it well... well, about 45% of the time. Which is still darn impressive for a mid-Eighties Californian band, so an honest thumbs up it is anyway.

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