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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Camper Van Beethoven: Tusk


1) Over And Over; 2) The Ledge; 3) Think About Me; 4) Save Me A Place; 5) Sara; 6) What Makes You Think You're The One; 7) Storms; 8) That's All For Everyone; 9) Not That Funny; 10) Sisters Of The Moon; 11) Angel; 12) That's Enough For Me; 13) Brown Eyes; 14) Never Make Me Cry; 15) I Know I'm Not Wrong; 16) Honey Hi; 17) Beautiful Child; 18) Walk A Thin Line; 19) Tusk; 20) Never Forget.

The liner notes to the album will inform you that the idea of covering Fleetwood Mac's Tusk in its entirety goes back to 1987, when the band recorded an original set of demo tapes but then decided to lay off the project. However, since no well-documented evidence exists for the fact, it is commonly assumed by the wise ones that this is just one of the many self-concocted myths around the band — and anyway, who cares? There is no doubt that Camper Van Beethoven, a band that lives in its own time frame, could have done this in 1987, in 1997, in 2017, heck, any place in time (would be a little hard to do it prior to 1979, but with these guys, nothing is ever completely impossible).

Anyway, while this particular move for the reassembled band was naturally unpredictable, it is not as totally «unnatural» as if they'd wanted to, say, come out with a bunch of Aphex Twin covers. Their penchant for surrealistically re-inventing old school material, from Floyd to Zep­pelin, was already well known; and when you think of it, there's quite a bit they have in common with Lindsey Buckingham — the inborn pop instincts, the diverse bag of influences ranging from pop to hard rock to folk / country / bluegrass, and the experimental drive that never allows these influences to drag the music down to the level of bland imitation. Even the choice of Tusk over all the other Fleetwood Mac albums is logical in a way — just as nobody expected an odd, chao­tic, experimental, and ultra-long record from Fleetwood Mac after Rumours, so did nobody expect the new CvB to cover all of it as their first «proper» new album in twelve years.

Of course, a post-modern take on an album that already had its share of post-modern moments in the first place is never going to make the annals in the status of a masterpiece. Understanding and even enjoying this new Tusk is hardly an autonomous task — it is useless to try and listen to it not only if you are unfamiliar with the original Tusk, but even if you are unfamiliar with Camper van Beethoven's classic period albums: it simply does not exist outside of its context. But even in context, it is not easy to understand what it is. It is not a «tribute» — many of the songs have been mutated almost beyond recognition — but neither is it a «parody», because they obviously love the source material, and besides, CvB were never a parody act. Mostly, it is about breaking as many rules as possible, and replacing them with one simple rule: Change The Vibe!

This rule is most evident when it comes to covering songs that were written and performed by Christine McVie (the starry-eyed sentimental ballads) and Stevie Nicks (the Ice Queen quasi-Goth doom-laden epics). With McVie, they go easy on the little moments of deep beauty (such as the desperate "could it really, really be..." melodic plunge on ʽOver And Overʼ), but take her to task hard on everything else — ʽThink About Meʼ is transformed into a pop-punk screamfest, ʽBrown Eyesʼ is made to sound like an industrialized Cabaret Voltaire number, ʽNever Make Me Cryʼ is now a lethargic psycho-folk dirge, ʽHoney Hiʼ is the product of a balalaika busker playing at a busy street intersection, and ʽNever Forgetʼ is turned into a lo-fi outtake from a fictional Neutral Milk Hotel recording session. In other words, we love your songs, Christine, but they could use some transplanting — it's just too boring when all of them are delivered in the same style. Don't you know that punk rockers, industrial grinders, street buskers, and batshit crazy indie kids have sentimental feelings, too?

With Stevie, it actually looks as if they don't like her songs all that much — most of them are as close as the album really comes to parody level. On ʽSaraʼ, they lay on so many sonic overdubs and so much echo on the vocals that it is clear — they are taking every precaution so as not to give the false impression that they are taking any of those lyrics seriously. ʽStormsʼ is dominated by a seriously out-of-tune violin track (we are verbally warned about this in the intro to the song) that makes it hard to focus on any other aspect of the song. The most hilarious surgery is being done on ʽSisters Of The Moonʼ, though, transformed into a synth-pop dirge with «robotic» female vocals delivering the lyrics in a thoroughly perfunctory and impassionate manner — in fact, towards the end of the song the «robot» actually breaks down and begins spouting broken bits from various quotations (ranging from "call me Ishmael" to "this one goes to eleven" to "fuck me harder"), implying that you probably wouldn't feel the difference anyway. I would sure love to learn Stevie's reaction to that one — there was a time when her performance of ʽSistersʼ took on quite a religious aspect on stage, but then, she always did have a sense of humor.

Working their magic over Buckingham's songs is a bit more difficult, considering how distinctly weird many of those were in the first place — and try as they might, they are not going to make songs like ʽThe Ledgeʼ or ʽI Know I'm Not Wrongʼ any weirder. All that's possible is to add a few more extravagant touches here and there — use some bagpipes on ʽI Know I'm Not Wrongʼ, some lazifying vocal distortion and a bit of trombone on ʽSave Me A Placeʼ, or insert a surrep­titious lyrical reference to the B-52's ʽRock Lobsterʼ in ʽNot That Funnyʼ (is this an implication  that the B-52's were «not that funny» or what?). The only spot where they pull all the stops is the title track — here, gloriously extended to a whoppin' ten-minute length and made into something much bigger than the original; in fact, this is probably the only song here that would merit inclu­sion on any representative CvB anthology, as it turns into a bombastic psychedelic jam with a chaotic noise section (at times, calling to mind ʽRevolution #9ʼ rather than any Fleetwood Mac track) and an extended series of drony guitar solos, all tied together with the classic dance-style ʽTuskʼ bass line. If you ever thought that the original ʽTuskʼ fizzled out way too soon (and I know I did), this inter­pretation of it might be right up your alley.

So what would be the final judgement? I think that as an idea, this track-for-track cover of Tusk is a cool one — despite the inevitable flaws in the individual realizations of particular tracks. As a «meta-artistic» gesture rather than an actual platter of emotional entertainment, this is hardly an album that you will want to listen to more than once unless you have "I'm not like everybody else" engraved in chicken shit over your front door, but it is a stimulating gesture all the same, and it is fascinating to observe all the huge effort that went into it — plus, as an obsessive com­pletist, I actually find myself fascinated with the determination to cover every single song on a double album (when they could have easily stuck to just their favourite Buckingham tunes, for instance, not necessarily just from Tusk). So, a thumbs up it is, after all, but now, if you excuse me, I feel a craving for the original coming on, and so should you, probably.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I've always loved the Mac's original, so I'll have to check this out....