CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: OUR BELOVED REVOLUTIONARY SWEETHEART (1988)
1) Eye Of Fatima (pt. 1); 2) Eye Of Fatima (pt. 2); 3) O Death; 4) She Divines Water; 5) Devil Song; 6) One Of These Days; 7) Turquoise Jewelry; 8) Waka; 9) Change Your Mind; 10) My Path Belated; 11) Never Go Back; 12) The Fool; 13) Tania; 14) Life Is Grand.
Always, always comes that day when the miserable reviewer, hungry for words, subjects and hooks, finally gets the chance to write: «Major changes on band so-and-so's most recent album! Finally, they have been able to secure a major label contract and professional recording quality, and so...» ...then you allow yourself a few seconds to take the decision whether it made them great or it made them suck (usually the latter), and from then on it's a fairly smooth ride.
The problem is, I did not even notice anything that would suggest Camper Van Beethoven had such a bout of fortune. And it's not like I couldn't have noticed — on second listen, you do notice a much louder drum sound than before, and a denser, yet cleaner mix than before, courtesy of producer Dennis Herring, assigned to them by Virgin Records. And it's not as if I haven't noticed some stylistic changes, either, as the band takes on a slightly more serious face than before, and comes up with a much larger number of «normal» songs than before. But never for the life of me would I want to ascribe that change to a commercial urge — Lowery and friends normally act as if the division between «commercial» and «non-commercial» never existed for them in the first place. It's not as if they began largely playing free-form jazz and then slowly migrated to pop formats; there was nothing self-consciously «weird» about their music, other than a never-ending drive to freely translate stuff from one musical idiom into another.
And so, on this first album for Virgin, the band simply gives us more of the same, except that the selected musical forms are now almost completely restricted to whatever was en vogue a good fifteen years ago — retro pop-rock, retro folk-rock, retro prog-rock, with a bit of glam and proto-punk thrown in for good measure. All too often, Lowery's guitar and Segel's violin combine to give things a definite country-and-western slant, but whenever that happens, psychedelic effects and melodic overdubs, as well as surrealist lyrics, are added to make sure that the band properly sounds like "cowboys on acid" (ʽEye Of Fatimaʼ), combining hillbilly paraphernalia with a hippie attitude: I'm sure somewhere out there, off some lonesome cloud, Hank Williams is surreptitiously eyeing them with fondness in his heart.
A few songs would suggest that the band is taking a darker turn — early on, their slow country dance take on the traditional ʽO Deathʼ sounds both ironically irreverent and a bit creepy, because you never can tell with these guys if they are doing a parody or a parallel-universe reinvention; and the fact that they took this old Appalachian dark folk number and turned it into a catchy folk-pop tune somehow makes it creepier. But there is no generally underlying dark current to the album — in fact, the final song explicitly states that "and life is grand... and I will say this at the risk of falling from favor / With those of you who have appointed yourselves / To expect us to say something darker". Behind all of these gestures really lies the same old — a stark desire to never be pigeonholed: considering that «college rock» or «underground rock» is typically associated with a punkish or at least just a generally mopey attitude towards life, Lowery and Co. feel like they have to present themselves as optimists, even if ʽO Deathʼ might seem to suggest the opposite. Why they never went out with a passionate cover of ABBA's ʽDancing Queenʼ, though, I have no idea.
That's all fine, though; more questionable is their decision to include some instrumentals where the emphasis is not on genre-mashing as it used to be, but rather on pure atmospherics — the second part of ʽEye Of Fatimaʼ is not unlike some pseudo-Led Zeppelin folk-metal experiment, with a mix of acoustic picking and blazing electric guitar god soloing, and later on they pretty much repeat the same thing with ʽWakaʼ; still later, ʽThe Foolʼ is a psycho-metallic waltz that you could probably hear from the likes of Jeff Beck in one of his particularly eccentric periods. It's okay, but Greg Lisher, responsible for lead guitar, is hardly a great guitar virtuoso, and if I am not all that tempted to play air guitar on these songs, then I am not sure what they really are there for — I'd rather go back to my Led Zep and Fairport Convention records.
Less questionable is the decision to just write some nice, fun songs — ʽNever Go Backʼ, ʽOne Of These Daysʼ, ʽChange Your Mindʼ, and the somewhat mysterious ʽTaniaʼ (whose messy lyrics seem loaded with the Jean-Luc Godard spirit) are all friendly, catchy and just sound cool on those front porches where Garth Brooks would not fit in. There's nothing too deep or pretentious concealed in them — merely an attempt to create conventional, but not boring roots-rock that could be palatable to the highly demanding listener. I'm really not sure how to follow this with an inappropriately deep-sounding conclusion, so I'll just leave you with another thumbs up, though perhaps a less excited one than on the band's debut, where it did look like they wanted to subvert conventional musical rules — here, all they want to do is to follow them creatively.