14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
There were a handful of albums that predated my arrival at the radio station by only a year or two that I was especially regretful about. I would have loved to reach into our Heavy Rotation stack and pull out Warehouse: Songs and Stories by Hüsker Dü or Pleased to Meet Me by the Replacements, largely because of the implicit green light to play them with abandon that came with their tenure in the section of the station library reserved for the newest of the new music. But I think the albums that stung the most were those that I missed by mere months, the opportunity to embrace them fully dashed by the cruel inflexibility of the calendar. I think the album that met that criteria that tugged at me the most was Camper Van Beethoven’s 1988 release, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.
This is partially because Camper Van Beethoven was the most pleasingly atypical band that I connected with at the time. Most of the bands that served as the foundation of my personal taste could be counted on to build their music around some level of guitar attack. It’s not like that was an absent element from Camper Van Beethoven’s sound, but the songs they built were far more idiosyncratic that my usual favorites. Some of their earlier records were (and are) fairly spotty, but I thought Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart was masterful. I feel like it may have even been still lingering around on the new music wall directly behind the DJ station, down in the wide expanse of older new releases labeled “NMS Stacks,” just waiting for the Music Director to get around to shoving them into the full library that lined the walls of the studio. Still, it wasn’t truly, fully new, begging to be played with the sense of reopened discovery that came with dropping the needle on yet another previously unplayed track with every shift. That’s what I craved.
So the arrival of the band’s follow-up in 1989 was especially exciting to me because of the way it stood in for that missed earlier experience. Key Lime Pie was like it’s predecessor in many respects, but it also bore the unmistakable marks of a band tugging in different directions, a schism that reached its logical conclusion when they called it quits the following year. Many of the members of Camper Van Beethoven were part of a side project called Monks of Doom that freely trafficked in odd sounds seemingly inspired by every corner of the globe and maybe a few nooks on other planets. That predilection showed up in songs like “The Light From a Cake” and “The Humid Press of Days,” which certainly carried some threads of prior Camper Van Beethoven efforts but also seemed to push with violin-quaking agitation against the confines of the band’s established brand of songcraft. Judging by the sound and sense of humor that defined the band he formed after Camper’s demise, lead singer David Lowery leaned instead towards comparatively straightforward material. When I listen to the album, I think of the country tinged lark “When I Win the Lottery” (“When I win the lottery/ Gonna buy all the girls on my block/ A color TV and a bottle of French perfume”) and the fierce, edgy “(I Was Born in A) Laundromat” as being contributions dominated by Lowery’s musical personality. That may or may not be right–I’ve never looked into the songwriting chemistry behind individual Camper songs–but that I hear the distinctions at all is a measure of the lack of cohesion I sense on the album, or at least the cracking of the cohesion that I hear cutting across the tracks like the ambient surface noise of well-worn vinyl.
That internal erraticism isn’t automatically a bad thing, although that does tend to be my knee-jerk judgment. Key Lime Pie holds up quite well. The push and pull of the dueling forces imbues the record with a sharp sense of musical freedom. There’s shadowy structure keeping the flightier songs contained just enough and little blips of wildness giving color to songs that could otherwise threaten to become rote plods. And then there’s a song like “Borderline” that could have slid happily onto Our Beloved, demonstrating that symbiosis was hardly out of their collective reach.
The best remembered song on Key Lime Pie, indeed probably the only Camper Van Beethoven song not involving bowling skinheads that got airplay outside of college radio, was a cover of an old song by the pub rock group Status Quo. If I’m remembering correctly, members of Camper Van Beethoven explained that they covered “Pictures of Matchstick Men” because they felt it was one of the strangest songs to ever become a Top 40 hit in the United States (the only hit Status Quo ever had on this side of the Atlantic, as a matter of fact). That naturally held a great deal of appeal to the band members since deliberate strangeness was sort of their forte. And deliberate strangeness fit pretty well into the mission statement of most college radio stations at the time too. So clearly not everything was a tug of war.
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing