CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: KEY LIME PIE (1989)
1) Opening Theme; 2) Jack Ruby; 3) Sweethearts; 4) When I Win The Lottery; 5) (I Was Born In A) Laundromat; 6) Borderline; 7) The Light From A Cake; 8) June; 9) All Her Favorite Fruit; 10) Interlude; 11) Flowers; 12) The Humid Press Of Days; 13) Pictures Of Matchstick Men; 14) Come On Darkness.
With this album, the first stage of the existence of Camper Van Beethoven comes to a — rather somber — close. Apparently, the group began to splinter even before the recording started, with the loss of Jonathan Segel being a particularly heavy blow: they do their best to mask his absence by hiring non-member Don Lax and, later still, temporary member Morgan Fichter to play the violin, but it is, perhaps, not so much the presence/absence of the fiddle sound as it is a certain intuitively felt disappearance of one shade of rainbow that is the main problem.
Every review of Key Lime Pie that you read is going to focus on two aspects of this record: (a) it is noticeably darker and less idealistic than before (as if you couldn't tell, what with the very last track being named ʽCome On Darknessʼ and all); (b) it is less musically diverse, with most songs molded in a relatively traditional Americana pattern, with heavy folk, country, and blues influences. Throw in a bunch of politicized lyrics every now and then, and you'd easily get the impression that Lowery and his pals are trying to get «serious» and «make a statement», essentially betraying Camper's original un-ideology, either in the vain hope to score extra financial success (which they actually did, since Key Lime Pie sold noticeably better than they used to), or because they have outgrown their adolescent phase and are no longer so obstinate about making «art for art's sake».
Certainly this impression is at its strongest with the album's first song, ʽJack Rubyʼ, which uses the title character as an abstract allegory for the mess we're in ("now we think it's a virtue to simply survive / but it feels like this calm it's decaying / it's collapsing under its own weight"). It's a long, repetitive, gloomy folk-rock ballad, one that probably begs to be covered by a Joan Baez or, who knows, even a Bob Dylan (certainly wouldn't feel out of place on one of his late period albums like Modern Times). With a sparse arrangement, largely reduced to a ringing rhythm guitar and an angry distorted lead guitar track with a penchant for sustained notes and whammy bar abuse, this is as close to an apocalyptic mood as the Campers ever get.
Skip ahead several tracks, though, and songs like ʽJuneʼ will show you that essentially, it's just David Lowery in a really, really bad mood. "Are you weary of the lengthening days?", he asks, "do you secretly wish for November's rain?", and goes on to conclude, "there is nothing in this world more bitter than Spring". Musically, this is probably the album's most interesting and innovative number, a dark waltz that shifts keys and becomes even darker midway through, all the time staying very heavy on the strings, with a psychedelic chamber arrangement somewhere in between country-western and modern classical — but its words and its basic mood suggest, first and foremost, that something just went really rotten on the inside. It's like the band just doesn't feel like having fun any more — not some sort of conscious decision to «get deeper and darker», but merely an instinctive reflection of some nasty virus eating up the soul.
The only track on the album that is not altogether infused with this nasty feel is (in yet another nod to the great god of unpredictability) the band's cover of Status Quo's ʽPictures Of Matchstick Menʼ, with the slide guitar riff lovingly recreated by Morgan Fichter's violin, but otherwise fairly loyal to the original. However, in its lonely position, stuck in between a bunch of morose tracks, it sounds more like a melancholically nostalgic tribute to long gone days of hippie happiness than an idealistic attempt to bring those days back. And how could it be taken with a light heart, really, after all these songs that deal with pissed-off loser dreams (ʽWhen I Win The Lotteryʼ — "when the end comes to this old world / the rats will cry and the rest will curl up"), venting frustration accumulated at the bottom of the social ladder (ʽI Was Born In A Laundromatʼ), the impossibility of getting satisfaction even from blessed escapism (ʽBorderlineʼ — ska rhythms return with a gritty, snappy vengeance and conclude that "on the borderline everything is empty, even you and I"), and the uselessness of romance (ʽAll Her Favorite Fruitʼ, said to be based around a love line from Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, but applicable to any situation in which a pair of lovers feel like "we are rotting like a fruit underneath a rusting roof")?
All in all, this was clearly not a happy period in the band's life, but the album on the whole still qualifies as a good one — there's plenty of catchy choruses, enough tracks like ʽJuneʼ that can still grab your attention with unusual and beautiful textures, and Lowery is as good at transmitting the aura of weariness and dissatisfaction as he is at being a smartass cynic with a sharp sense of humor. Not every band that started out with such effective absurdity as ʽThe Day That Lassie Went To The Moonʼ could bring it to such a convincingly morose finale as ʽCome On Darknessʼ, even if it does make you wonder if there's a certain natural law that inevitably leads The Joker on to becoming The Undertaker (then again, so far it hasn't really worked on Weird Al Yankovic, to say the least). I give it a thumbs up, but beware — you will only enjoy it if you did not dig all those previous Camper records merely for being «hilarious».