Kronomyth 1.0: THE GRAND DADA OF THEM ALL. The Camper’s debut album featured a sticker on the outside packaging that wondered aloud what an absurdist/surrealist folk cum California punk band would sound like if they set out to write songs about TV dogs traveling to the moon, communist leaders lost in idle reverie and fictitious folkscapes from faraway places. The answer is a polka band tripping balls, about seventy-five percent of the time anyway. Which is not as much fun as you’d think. Sure, there are some great laughs on here—“The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon,” “Take The Skinheads Bowling,” “Club Med Sucks”—but you’ll need to wade through a lot of Ukrainian folk/punk/whatever in the meantime. The instrumentals (a/k/a the bulk of the album) are either ethnic ska or noisy folk/art or sometimes both (the winning “Balalaika Gap” for example). At their best (e.g., “Border Ska”), the instrumentals are short, guilty pleasures. At their worst, you’re reminded of why no one else was making music like this. The talent is definitely there, especially on the vocal tracks, which include an embellished cover of Black Flag’s “Wasted” and the perfectly titled “Ambiguity Song.” Wisely, the band inverted the vocal/instrumental ratio on subsequent albums, and the world warmed up to them. Here, however, it all feels like a soundtrack to an Eastern European art film, especially if you pick up the expanded edition that folds in the contents of the mostly instrumental Take The Skinheads Bowling EP. The deadpan vocal delivery, screeching violins and psychedelic garage sound are unmistakable as the Campers, but they initially set up camp pretty far out on the fringes, and it’s a bit of a hike just to hear a few good punk/pop songs.
Kronomyth 2.0: COWBOYS FROM HOLLYWEIRD. The band’s second album features more smartalecky, lo-fi indie rock made by everyone’s favorite former latchkey kids from California. II & III reduces the quasi-Ukrainian folk music quotient down to one (“4 Year Plan”), which is a kindness, replacing it with swamp music (“Abundance”), psychedelic sketches (“Circles”), cowpunk instrumentals and a handful of winning songs, none of them better than the sentimental “Sad Lovers Waltz.” Yet Camper Van Beethoven is still a tease. “(We’re A) Bad Trip,” “Cowboys From Hollywood” (a fitting candidate for the band’s unofficial theme song) and “No More Bullshit” show the band’s strength is two-minute, twisted songs with David Lowery’s bored, nasally voice at the fore, but they’re pretty damn stingy with it. It’s almost as though, for every song they finish with words, the band needs to blow off steam with two minutes of instrumental muckery (un petit portmanteau, in case you’re wondering). The first album had better songs but was self-consciously absurd. The second album is less odd for odd’s sake and more likely to wear its affections on its sleeves, from VU (“Sometimes”) to Sonic Youth (“I Love Her All The Time”) to I’m pretty sure it’s the Buzzcocks (“Chain of Circumstance,” sung by Jonathan Segel). In the jetpackin’ 21st century, the original album was released with a handful of bonus tracks, including the awesome “Down And Out,” which namechecks Lou Reed. We’re not out of the woods yet; II & III doesn’t show a quantum leap in maturity or anything like that, but there are signs that the band is taking themselves (and their music) more seriously.
Kronomyth 3.0: WILL HE AMAZE? In 1986, after two years of tantalizing speed and power, Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds became only the second player in baseball history to record more than 20 home runs and 80 stolen bases in a season. Which may seem apropos of nothing, but I believe that baseball is a suitable analogy for everything. (It has to do with the statistical purity of baseball, which is a long discussion for another day.) Camper Van Beethoven’s eponymous third album is analogous to Eric Davis’ career: after two years of tantalizing but uneven albums, CVB finally delivered on their potential. The album includes some of their strongest songs so far: “Good Guys And Bad Guys,” “Still Wishing To Course,” “We Saw Jerry’s Daughter.” There’s still a lot of russian folk american country psychedelic punk “stuff” sandwiched in between, but it’s shaped into actual songs this time (okay, well, most of the time anyway) and imprinted with interesting narratives. “The History of Utah,” “We Love You” and “Peace & Love” would fall into the latter category, and I would submit that they’re just as interesting as the proper songs. I don’t know why CVB finally decided to make a “normal” alternative rock record, but maybe it has to do with that third-time-is-a-charm thing. CVB v3.o is certainly the most charming album they’ve made. The production on the album is also noticeably better, which could be a case of experience, a bigger budget or both. The connection between CVB and the previous generation of classic rockers also becomes clearer, with titular references to Led Zeppelin, a musical nod or two to VU and a swell cover of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive.” For me, this marks the beginning of the band’s best music because, I suppose, I am a melody-loving milquetoast and a middling marxist at best.
“Not a day at the beach, but work” I recall thinking when I first bought this. Listening to it again, years later, Breakfast on the Beach of Deception caught my ear as a mix between King Crimson’s discipline and Butthole Surfers’ childish indiscipline. (And, no, we won’t be mixing names today.) The record gets off to a great start: “In Anticipation of the Pope” is the kind of monster you expect from prog choppers like Mike Keneally, then a track with Victor Krummenacher’s creepy vocals, followed by some quasi-Jamaican space spelunkering on “Facts About Spiders.” Beach reminds me of those starter kit rock collections you could buy in toy stores: there’d be some shiny ones, dull ones, spiky ones and smooth ones, laid out like candy you couldn’t eat. You wouldn’t want to make a meal out of this record, couldn’t even if you wanted to, because its purpose is to get the poison out: release all the weird ideas and demons into the wild magnetic beyond. It doesn’t sound like the Monks arrived at Beach with heldover ideas or songs that couldn’t fit in Camper. They just didn’t arrive with a vocalist or a violinist, which allowed them to unleash their instruments and pursue nontraditional structures that would ordinarily be hard to sing around (e.g., “Visions from the Acid Couch”). The component I can never get my arms around in describing this music is a kind of Armenian/Greek folk element that appears in the guitars sometimes (it appeared in Camper too as a sort of gypsy spirit). I have no idea if it’s really Armenian or Greek, I’m only saying that because it sounds Greek and because I don’t work Armenia into my reviews often enough (The Who notwithstanding). While Beach is a good first record, it’s still an experimental, instrumental pet project. The real attraction in the zoo (the lion in the room) remained Camper Van Beethoven. Still, Monks gave them somewhere to go when Camper folded, so you can see this album as setting up an alternative camp even further out on the fringes. And, no, there was no film called Breakfast on the Beach of Deception; that’s the deception.
This made a Camper out of me. “Sweethearts,” “(I Was Born In A) Laundromat,” “June,” “Flowers,” “The Humid Press of Days,” “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” great stuff all of it. David Lowery’s clogged vocals suit the kitchen sink arrangements: violins, organ, ringing guitars, prickly percussion and lead guitars that lean over everything like a bent, black rainbow. You’d have to look to the Pixies to find a another band that could render oddball observations with such musical joy. Jack Ruby in portraiture, Ronald Reagan in dementia, a leftist lottery winner in America, the band’s eye doesn’t rest for a minute. Like The Pixies, the band gives every song their all. Sure, the riffs behind “(I Was Born In A) Laundromat” and “Pictures of Matchstick Men” have Winner written all over them, but these are fourteen favored children with no filler among them. (“Interlude” is a tiny connector, but it sets up “Flowers” so perfectly I can’t imagine Key Lime Pie without it.) New violinist Morgan Fichter fits in just fine too, in case you were wondering where Jonathan Segel flew off to. Though I tend to pick up Pie at “June” and devour the second half in one sitting, you can eat the whole Pie at once (crust and everything). “Borderline” and “Come on Darkness” don’t resonate with my daily mood so much, but they go down easy enough. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you where Key Lime Pie belongs next to their other works, since I don’t own them yet. (Chance, my enemy, conspires to keep Camper at a distance.) However, comparing it to The Pixies isn’t going to kill anyone, so let’s say it’s like Bossanova. (Okay, everyone: It’s like Bossanova.) Playful, pointed, inspired and unpredictable, Key Lime Pie is a keeper, even if it’s the only Camper company I currently keep.
The Monks are back with a (voodoo) vengeance. The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company is nothing short of sweet, beautiful mutiny. Morgan Fichter had left camp, and now the rest of Camper Van Beethoven minus David Lowery released a “real” second album that sounded like Swamper Van Beethoven. Their debut was interesting but felt like a side project. Their second favors songs that compare well to Camper: “The Evidence You Hide,” “Taste of Tendon,” “Broadcast at Midday.” There are still instrumentals (“Vaporize Your Crystals,” “Unexplained Murders”), but they’re so fresh and free that you don’t mind them any more than you did Zappa’s instrumentals. And I’ll hand out extra cool points to anyone who tackles a track by Snakefinger (“The Vivian Girls”). In comparing this to Camper, I usually arrive at that band’s swampier songs (e.g., “Borderline”). Lowery’s voice is sleepier than Victor Krummenacher’s, though they’re both very nasal. The Monks are also deliberately darker than Camper, ending the album with a ditty about a dead body (take that, abbey road). At ten tracks (eleven if you count the tribal reprise of “Voodoo Vengeance” sandwiched between the last two songs), The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company is a little light. That’s the only complaint I have: I would have liked more of it. If you’re a Camper fan thinking of crossing over, consider this. I bought The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company after buying Key Lime Pie and loving it. Then I bought two more Monks releases and never bought another Camper Van Beethoven disc. Not that I don’t like CvB anymore, but I got sidetracked. Side projects don’t divert your attention like that; this is a whole other road that leads into its own forest. Enter it here and you may never make it back to Camp either.
This is the part of the story where our hero, taking a hiatus from highbrow jazz reviews, rediscovers his inner Cracker and with it the disturbing revelation that he could listen to David Lowery sing the words “titty ring” on an endless loop all day. “Low” and “Get Off This” are currently in heavy rotation in my mind. Sometimes I decide that the secretly stashed “Euro-Trash Girl” (track 69) is worth an extra sixty clicks, and rarely begrudge “I Ride My Bike” another twenty. At its best, Kerosene Hat invites comparison to those absurdist and absurdly catchy Camper songs (“Nostalgia”). At its worst, it sounds like flat Camper outtakes (“Take Me Down To The Infirmary”). I’m not building a Cracker Van Beethoven mythology yet; the dynamics are different. Yes, there’s still Lowery’s nasal-drip delivery and absurd sense of humor, the ghost waltzes (“Kerosene Hat”) and alt-country/punk rock adventures. But CVB wouldn’t have done a serious reading of “Loser” or played a straight country song like “Lonesome Johnny Blues.” It’s tempting to see Cracker as just another alternative icon slouching their way back into the spotlight (and into our hearts) with bar-chord fury and half-baked ballads like Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg and Frank Black. But Cracker is more fun, less predictable and, okay, maybe guilty of a little more mainstream baiting in ready-made anthems like “Low” and “Get Off This,” but hiding two killer songs from their last EP in a nest of “hidden” tracks is just the kind of bribe that makes me look the other way when charges of commercialism come up. Color me one happy Camper with Kerosene Hat.
Kronomyth 7.0: CAMPER VAN BOXED EVENTUALLY. The faithful, feasting on the crumbs of Cracker and Krummenacher, were finally treated to a Camper Van Beethoven boxed set. Only it was 80 poor scent straight repackages of their first three albums, the catch-all Camper Vantiques and an unreleased live disc from mostly 1990. If you own the a-four mentioned fourmal releases, Greatest Hits Played Faster isn’t much of a carrot for fourty bucks. However, if (like me) you picked up the Campers after “Eye of Fatima” (and, really, how could you resist that song?), then Cigarettes & Carrot Juice fills in the cracks nicely. Honestly, the first two discs didn’t do a whole lot for me; too many instrumentals and not enough pop. “Where The Hell Is Bill?,” “Opie Rides Again/Club Med Sucks,” “(We’re A) Bad Trip,” “No More Bullshit” and “Down And Out” stand out. The third disc is much better, beginning with the classic “Good Guys & Bad Guys” and careening into “Jo Stalin’s Cadillac,” “We Saw Jerry’s Daughter,” “Still Wishing To Course” and the bizarre “Peace & Love.” Camper Vantiques (the fourth disc) follows in the same vein, including a great cover of “Photograph” and a couple of instrumentals that for the life of me sound like Penguin Café Orchestra. The live disc sticks pretty close to the originals, focusing mostly on Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie. The Santa Cruz Years underscores the band’s debt to such psychedelic pioneers as Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd and The Doors. If they’d simply swapped out the last two discs for the remaining studio albums, you’d have a nifty collector’s set on your hands. Instead, Cigarettes & Carrot Juice leaves the two most accessible Camper albums out in the cold, just to be cranky I suppose. Personally, I’d tell you to save your money for their last three albums, then weigh the options of owning their third twice.
I have always loved a story, especially a tragic one. The Cock Crows At Sunrise is a beautiful tragedy about a man arrested for murder and the woman he leaves behind. Unlike the boobytrapped music of Camper and Monks, this disc is straight swamp blues and Memphis soul. (I know, those words don’t mean a thing to me either. It sounds like Dylan’s Nashville Skyline a lot of the time, if that helps.) At first, I wasn’t sure how much interest I had in a “normal” album from an abnormal artist like Victor Krummenacher. But the quality of the songs and the storytelling quickly won me over. Krummenacher is not a very good singer or an exceptional guitarist. He is an excellent songwriter and storyteller, a throwback to the Bob Dylan/Lou Reed days when musicianship and vocals took a back seat to big ideas. With its mixture of light and dark songs, The Cock Crows At Sunrise could be seen as a Berlin Skyline (that’s a combination of Lou Reed’s Berlin and Dylan’s Nashville Skyline in case you’re wondering). “I Have Always Loved A Party” is pure heartache (compare it to Reed’s “The Bed”), “If I Could Ride That Train” is a gilded treat (compare it to “Lay Lady Lay”). The story is divided in two parts by an instrumental “Interlude” (see earlier comment re: not an exceptional guitarist); the first part follows the accused man, the second his fiancee. The emotional peak of the story occurs at the end of side one, “In Queen City The Girls Are Weeping,” where the hero (or anti-hero) is on the run for murder, with the implication that he’ll “get mine in time.” Choosing to follow the rest of the story from his fiancee’s perspective is brilliant. Abandoned, she sinks into morphine (“My Baby’s Brown Hair”) and greets her fate with a sad, philosophical resolve (“Infinitely Empty,” “When It All Comes Around”). As an ending it’s something of a cheat, but musical stories are a difficult challenge that Krummenacher meets in every other aspect (linear timelines, connecting threads, great music that stands on its own irregardless). Approaching this from the perspective of Monks, only the dark “In Queen City…” will be expected. Yet what’s more surprising is how little Victor Krummenacher needs the crutch of strangeness to sell his songwriting. As a songteller, he scripts the essential scenes, chooses the right lighting and delivers a serious work that succeeds where many have failed.