“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.
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), 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 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.
Kronomyth 4.0: OBLIVION AS THEY ROSE SHRANK LIKE A THING REPROVED. Forgery finds the Monks’ swamp music telegraphed into the early nineties alternative rock scene. It’s another dark and serious album; you wonder if David Lowery didn’t leave camp with the band’s sense of humor in his backpack. The Monks have plenty of good ideas (nicking XTC’s “Making Plans For Nigel” on “Flow” isn’t one of them), play their instruments with a sense of adventure (including an unexpected electric guitar tango) and Victor Krummenacher’s dour vocals do grow on you over time. In a move of unwarranted optimism, the songs “Flint Jack” and “Virtual Lover” even seem to have been floated as potential singles by IRS, the label (or someone) going so far as to make a music video for “Flint Jack.” This turned out to be the end of the road, however, with the Monks going into retirement for a while. Yes, it’s a shame that the band never garnered more attention, although their music was always stern and standoffish. Young people didn’t buy records to be lectured on them, and you get the sense on Forgery that Victor Krummenacher is delivering a series of short sermons on the evils and dangers of the world (the reference to the “Reverend Victor Krummenacher” seems to concede the point). As with all of the original Monks album, this is worth owning. I’ve listened to it dozens of times over the years and still find myself humming “Virtual Lover” on occasional, idle moments. For the future, I think the band would well served by a compilation as a way to ease Camper fans into the Monks’ dark monde.
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.