Because they understand why middle-Eastern ethnic music isn’t really all that different from rock’n’roll, and because they realize that the indie-rock underground is every bit as stupid and petty as the mainstream, the mere existence of playfully eclectic post-hippie California surrealists Camper Van Beethoven validates the very concept of pop music. Unselfconsciously absorbing inspiration from any musical style that strikes them, and adding leader David Lowery’s dizzy absurdist lyrics, Santa Cruz’s Campers make records that suggest what the Grateful Dead might sound like if they had a sense of humor and knew how to write pop songs.
The band has gradually downplayed the giddy shifts in style that distinguished their early LPs, integrating their disparate influences into a more cohesive individual voice. Still, the Camper catalogue is a remarkably consistent one, showcasing a unique aesthetic that seemed to emerge fully developed on Telephone Free Landslide Victory.
In addition to the underground in-jokes “Take the Skinheads Bowling” (the EP of which pairs that college- radio hit with five non-LP tracks of varying length) and “Where the Hell is Bill?,” Telephone includes a woozy cover of Black Flag’s “Wasted” and self-explanatory instrumentals like “Border Ska,” “Yanqui Go Home,” “Balalaika Gap” and “Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China.” The 20-track II & III features lots of country references and a hoedown version of Sonic Youth’s “I Love Her All the Time,” plus the raga- pop “Circles,” the phony anti-rock protest anthem “No More Bullshit” and the delightful “ZZ Top Goes to Egypt.”
Camper Van Beethoven displays a more integrated band style and an emerging political consciousness on “Good Guys & Bad Guys” and “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac”; there’s also a respectful cover of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Une Fois,” the most impressive Indian-cajun fusion in recent memory. (A 1987 CD combines Camper Van Beethoven and Vampire Can Mating Oven.)
Closing out the band’s indie-label career, the six-song Vampire Can Mating Oven collects up some enjoyable odds and ends, including a jolly remake of Ringo Starr’s “Photograph.”
Judging by Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, Camper Van’s move to the majors didn’t dampen the combo’s iconoclasm, and the addition of a sympathetic producer (Dennis Herring) has made for a more ambitious sonic palette. Highlights include the catchy, self- deflating “Never Go Back” (previewed on the Vampire Can Mating Oven EP), the picturesque “Eye of Fatima,” the Zep-like “Waka” and an oldie, “O Death,” borrowed from ’60s kindred spirits Kaleidoscope.
Key Lime Pie — the group’s final album prior to an acrimonious breakup — is a decidedly bittersweet swansong, trading the exuberance of prior outings for a crushing sense of disillusionment. Still, the record’s gloomy vibe makes for sporadically interesting listening on “When I Win the Lottery,” the appropriately titled closer (“Come on Darkness”) and particularly the stunning “Sweethearts,” a resigned assessment of the Reagan era. A cute remake of Status Quo’s 1968 “Pictures of Matchstick Men” seems to have wandered in from another album.
The mostly instrumental first Monks of Doom LP is a side project featuring three Campers — guitarist Greg Lisher, bassist Victor Krummenacher and drummer Chris Pedersen — and Ophelias guitarist David Immerglück (who became an end-time Camper) playing mildly psychedelic improvisational guitar rock, with occasional forays into jazzy ethnicity. The more song-oriented Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company is a big improvement over its predecessor, with the Monks having developed a distinct identity apart from their parent bands. Drawing on a seemingly bottomless well of mainstream-rock and avant- garde clichés, they produce personalized art-rock that’s both artful and rocking, with covers of Eugene Chadbourne and the Residents that are conceptually consistent with the quartet’s surprisingly concise originals.
Longtime Camper violinist Jonathan Segel — who left the band during the early stages of Key Lime Pie — released the 28-track Storytelling double-LP while still a member of the group. The leisurely song cycle moves easily between quiet folk tunes, gentle psychedelia and flat-out prog-rock, with the multi-instrumentalist getting musical help from all four Monks of Doom and various other San Francisco scenesters. Though Segel is only a passable vocalist, his matter-of-factly gee-whiz lyrics are functional, and the music makes for fine late- night/pre-dawn listening.