Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Camper Van Beethoven

  • Telphone Free Landslide Victory [Independent Project, 1985] A-
  • II & III [Pitch-a-Tent, 1986] A-
  • Camper Van Beethoven [Pitch-a-Tent, 1986] A
  • Vampire Can Mating Oven [Pitch-a-Tent EP, 1987] A-
  • Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart [Virgin, 1988] B+
  • Key Lime Pie [Virgin, 1989] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Telphone Free Landslide Victory [Independent Project, 1985]
Some believe "Take the Skinheads Bowling" makes these pranksters a one-joke band, but there are loads of jokes in that song alone, most of which they don't bother to tell--for instance, do you bowl with the skinheads or with the skinheads' heads? So count them a seventeen-joke band, one for each cut, including instrumentals. If only Brave Combo could relax like this, the world might yet dance (and fall all over itself) to world dance music. Existential indecision lives. A-

II & III [Pitch-a-Tent, 1986]
I was annoyed by all the instrumentals at first--Balkan folk dances as psychedelic cowpunk, a mite précieux, don'cha think? Not really, and plenty catchy in the end regardless. There are too many lyrics aimed at the foibles of acquaintances and potential fans as well. And every last one is a hoot in their dryly absurdist manner. A-

Camper Van Beethoven [Pitch-a-Tent, 1986]
Without benefit of a "Skinheads" or a "Bad Trip," this is the most convincing of the three very good albums they've dashed off in a year and a half--sixteen tracks, eclectic in a panfolkrock mode that now seems unselfconscious if not inevitable, even the instrumentals equipped with words of one sort of another sometimes. Their stance is bemused when it's not just spaced out, and their "Interstellar Overdrive" is too conceptual for my tastes. But I reserve the right to read good politics into the likes of "Joe Stalin's Cadillac" (is LBJ's Cadillac is Somoza's Cadillac is General Pinochet's Cadillac is my Cadillac I'd like to drive it off a bridge has anyone seen the bridge). So far their productivity seems proof against the desperate indulgences that can overcome talented bands with dodgy commercial prospects. They're an encouraging aberration in a bad time. I wish them a tour bus w/driver that never lets them down. A

Vampire Can Mating Oven [Pitch-a-Tent EP, 1987]
At first I thought they'd tossed off some makeshift DIY to convince major money they were still prolific, but the deadpan positivity of these six cuts is no throwaway (I hope). Thwarted love, meaningless love, ice cream, never go back, instrumental breakdown, all distinguished by the calm acceptance of fate that marks their brilliant cover of "Photograph" as unmistakably as it marks Ringo Starr's brilliant original. A-

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart [Virgin, 1988]
Suddenly these postmodern postfolkie weirdos are transformed into, of all things, a rock band--sans chops. And unfortunately, chops are an issue: both the one-dimensional matter-of-factness of the vocal concept and the time-keeping world-beat-by-numbers of the rhythmic philosophy stick out of Dennis Herring's honest AOR production, which messes up the band's balance even though it leaves everything but the mix untouched. Beneath this disorienting surface the message continues its evolution toward postanomie, and it would be a kick to hear "Life Is Grand," say, on the radio. Not AOR, though--college radio, where the nay-sayers it's aimed at call the shots. B+

Key Lime Pie [Virgin, 1989]
After an instrumental establishes the band's voice, out march four amazing songs--two literal, two associative, all smart, ambitious, eccentric, eloquent, unassuming, compassionate, and cognizant of history. Music's a more forceful version of their by now homey-sounding bouzouki-rock, and when the country-rock guitar hook snakes professionally out of the associative "Sweet Hearts" it makes sense somehow. But on an album they call "bittersweet"--"not gloomy, but moody"--those four songs are pretty much it. "Pictures of Matchstick Men" smirks cheerfully at hippie nostalgia, and "All Her Favorite Fruit" is all those good adjectives. But both are swamped by music that's not gloomy, not moody, just lugubrious; the big drumbeats evoke nothing so much as the gong at a Chinese funeral. They knew better back when skinhead jokes were funny. B+