Rating:It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was just another case of a record label casting around for the Next Big Thing. Camper Van Beethoven’s first three albums, packed with a quirky mix of Eastern European folk, psychedelia and punk, had scored well with critics and college radio, so Virgin Records signed the band in 1987 and probably hoped for the best. Virgin followed the standard major-label script and tried to support the band, but inevitably applied their own creative aesthetic. The production polished the band’s sound and added horns, but it also sanded away some of the character. The musical mélange was still there, but the chaos was more bottled up and the emphasis was on the vocals. Despite all of that effort, they likely didn’t quite understand the end result. They gave Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart the usual record company push and generated some interest on MTV, but the mainstream audience seemed as confused as the Virgin executives must have been. A year later, the label gave it another shot with Key Lime Pie. By that time, though, band tensions were growing; multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel had already left. Their cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” did fairly well, but the rest of the band imploded shortly afterwards.
It’s a shame that Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart never really found its audience. It may not have been destined for mainstream acceptance, but it also missed the mark with many of the band’s long-time fans. While it’s full of gypsy-tinged psychedelia along with David Lowery’s surrealistic lyrics, the band seems less intriguing and the mood is a bit darker. Even when a song does deconstruct itself, like the middle section of “She Divines Water,” it’s just a brief interlude. Lowery’s poetic love song grows in scope, flowering into a celebration of joy and uplifting violin, before melting into a disorienting memory palace of associations. But after a mere 20 seconds or so, a gentle version of the theme returns to put the song to bed. Similarly, while “Turquoise Jewelry” does take advantage of the horn section to suggest early Oingo Boingo’s dark carnival style, the song itself is less exploratory than their earlier material.
Although the original release benefited from the better quality engineering that Virgin provided, this reissue does a fine job of demonstrating the technical improvements since then. Listening to “Waka,” the individual tracks shine with clarity. As the acid rock instrumental steps through its paces, each layer is distinct. The package also includes the usual run of extra tracks. The band honors their punk roots by covering the Buzzcocks, the Damned and the Stranglers, along with a surprising version of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.” But the two most interesting songs are their instrumental surf guitar take on the well-known spiritual, “Wade in the Water” and a Frankenstein’s monster edit reuniting the two parts of “Eye of Fatima.” The former works surprisingly well, summoning the intensity of the Ventures and other surf icons, but the “Eye of Fatima” mash-up misses the mark. The two source pieces share a title, but little else; part one is a solid rocker while part two is a slow burn folk-to-psychedelic head-trip. This edit grafts the instrumental onto the end of the rocker, sacrificing the slower intro section of part two. A sharp segue barely attempts to mask the join. That’s the only real misstep on this rerelease.
Although Key Lime Pie continued Camper Van Beethoven’s move towards a more controlled sound and it’s their only album without Segel, I’ve always liked it better than Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. It has a stronger set of songs, especially the one-two punch of “Opening Theme” into “Jack Ruby” that contrasts two perspectives. The first tune is a stately instrumental, relying largely on the violin for moody ambiance. Although Lowery can sneer and effortlessly generate quirky imagery, this kind of melting pot of stylistic influences is what has always attracted me. The hypnotically snaking melody suggests a different era and culture. “Jack Ruby,” on the other hand, opens with a discordant run of acoustic guitar that pushes the piece off balance. Like Sweetheart, this reissue features the same clarity, making it easier to distinguish that what I had originally heard as an echo is actually a second, out of phase guitar. If “Opening Theme” has a well-mannered Old World folk feel, Lowery makes this a modern folk song with his raw recounting of Jack Ruby and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. The new mix also brings the electric guitar fills even further to the front. Other great tracks on the album include the off-kilter “The Light from a Cake” and “(I Was Born In a) Laundromat,” which predates “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but serves up some righteous proto-grunge.
Key Lime Pie takes a different turn for its extra tracks. After “Closing Theme,” which was originally intended to bookend “Opening Theme,” the band serves up a fun, psychedelic remix of “Laundromat” that’s over the top with excess: screaming metallic guitar riffs, back-masked segments and a frat boy chant (“Go! Go! Go! ). Most of the remaining extra tunes are clean but compressed concert recordings of songs from the band’s back catalog. One exception is their live cover of the country classic, “Before I Met You.” The song was originally a hit for Carl Smith in the ‘50s, and Charlie Pride and Porter Wagoner got mileage in the ‘60s. The intro demonstrates the similarity between this melody and “Sad Lovers Waltz.” This take is a duet between Lowery and Segel’s replacement, Morgan Fichter.
These two rereleases show Camper Van Beethoven doing their best to tap their creativity from within the confines of their record label. Their sound never did reach the mainstream; Lowery would be much more successful at that with his next band, Cracker. But the improved mix and extras make both of these packages attractive. Omnivore even offers each in vinyl format as well.