March 28, 2005

The Desire Realm of the Four Destinies

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Camper Van Beethoven has often been ignored as a gross anomaly in the history of indie-rock. The band’s albums are trivialized as goofy and insincere novelties if they’re even mentioned at all. In fact, CVB was one of the essential underground groups of the late ’80s, straddling the thin line between the fashionable malaise of punk and the ecstatic idolatry of pop. The band formed in Santa Cruz, CA — my hometown, as well as the notorious hotbed of surfer machismo and redwood reefer — in the midst of the immensely influential ’80s LA punk scene (which included Black Flag, the Minutemen and X). Instead of relenting to punk’s stringent policies on aural purity and rawness, CVB incorporated reggae, Middle Eastern folk and Polynesian percussion into their brilliant disorder. The band also displayed an unnerving wit, ridiculing everything from Zeppelin-style bombast and hypocritical countercultures to teenage apathy and brutal world leaders (including Pinochet and Somoza).

At the time of their 1985 debut, the band was being featured on college radio and valorized as innovators in the mainstream media. After five eccentric and sporadically masterful albums, the band collapsed in 1989. In 2002, they reunited for a string of shows in conjunction with the reissue of all their original recordings. Here are some excellent introductions to one of California’s most deranged bands:

1. All Her Favorite Fruit [from Key Lime Pie]

CVB’s defining moment is my pick for the best love song of the ’80s, twisting war-torn break-up lyrics into a gripping storyline that might as well have been written by a DMT-smoking Melville. The first half of the song is a nearly unbearable portrait of sudden abandonment and paralyzing nostalgia. The lyrics are as precise and knowledgeable as an anatomy textbook. But the second half demonstrates how the singer escapes his anxiety through incoherent fantasies and impossible expectations. “And if I weren’t a civil servant, I’d have a place in the colonies,” David Lowery whines dementedly. “We’d play croquet behind white-washed walls and drink our tea at four. Within intervention’s distance of the embassy.”

2. Sweethearts [from Key Lime Pie]

Listening to Sweethearts is like taking a convertible train from drizzly Great Falls to sunny Salt Lake City. Alternating between sober melancholy and ludicrously whimsy, the lyrics describe every possible example of love and delusion. The slide guitar falls to pieces faster than the singer’s relationships and the shimmering orchestral swells expand and contract like broken fireplace bellows and sore leg muscles. All this in a song that references McDonnell Douglas, Ronald Reagan and James Bond.

3. Ambiguity Song [from Telephone Free Landslide Victory]

This paean to uncertainty — the final song from CVB’s first album — makes an indelible impression, particularly when you’ve just listened to 16 songs that stretch from sarcastic metal to Greenwich folk. Lowery admits that “everything seems to be up in the air at this time.” He later concludes, quite reasonably, that “some people are gonna benefit. And others gotta sacrifice.” To add to the tension, his impenetrable political musings are buoyed by keening violin and vaguely spastic drumming.

4. Never Go Back [from Camper Vantiquities]

Even though it’s a B-side, this charismatic country-rock gem renounces the past, including the singer’s previous employment as the “man who’s had more feet kicked in his face than I can begin to count.” Apparently, this renunciation entails quite a bit of gypsy organ flourishes and thudding drum kits. It’s the ballad of a drunk who’s trying to flee his demonic hallucinations and win back his ex’s love.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Sun Senior Writer