Camper Van Beethoven – Telephone Free Landslide Victory

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

No one could ever accuse me of being joyous, but I do like bands that have fun and approach music with a sense of rambunctious adventure. I do not care for affected goofiness or contrived weirdness (you can keep your Barenaked Ladies, thankyouverymuch), so it comes down to a question of authenticity, which can be difficult to gauge. Relatedly, it took me a very long time to come around on They Might Be Giants. A big part of the appeal of Camper Van Beethoven (and related band, Cracker) is the devil-may-care attitude with which the band invests its unusual sound. The early history of the band is complicated but let’s agree that the group (originally called Camper Van Beethoven and the Border Patrol) formed around 1983 in Redlands, California, and then developed further in Santa Cruz, where David Lowery, Chris Molla, and Jonathan Segel were going to college. This debut album is a whirlwind collection of ideas, with a fractured and funny sound that the band never quite replicated. The next couple of albums (II & III (that’s one album) and Camper Van Beethoven) better unified the disparate elements, while adding bits of psychedelia, classic rock, Americana, acid rock, and Indian influences. I admit that these albums are too much for me to get my head around. I came back for the two releases at the end of the classic period. The band reunited in the late ‘90s and released multiple albums thereafter, none of which I have listened to.

What I Think of This Album

There is no definitive way of looking at such a kaleidoscopic album. To separate it into two albums makes sense, but I am not sure that is fair to the band, nor does it really give you an accurate perspective (again, to the extent there can be such a thing). There are seventeen songs on this album, most under 2:30 (with one two-part song, an odd choice for a band that clearly has no problem releasing discrete pieces), almost half of which are instrumentals.

If you only listened to the instrumentals, you would come away thinking CVB was a bespectacled collection of earnest world music fans. These tracks – innocuous pleasantries like “Border Ska”; “Balalaika Gap”; “Yanqui Go Home”; and “Vladivostock” [sic] –  rely heavily on Jonathan Segel’s violin lines and Chris Molla’s guitar leads (mixing Eastern European folk, Latin, and East Asian sounds), augmented by a rhythm section in love with the upbeat.

The remaining fourteen songs are mostly smart-ass, delirious shots across the bow of every ship (whether destroyer or dinghy) in the popular culture flotilla, trading in thrash, country, and indie. These numbers conjure up an image of smirking, self-satisfied college kids, as versed in western swing as in west coast hardcore, and not afraid to celebrate or make fun of either.

Cult classic “Take the Skinheads Bowling” is prime absurdism, with lyrics like “There’s not a line that goes here that rhymes with anything” and “I wanted to lick your knees.” Hilarious and endlessly fun, but that’s also because it’s catchy as an STD, with a country feel, a nagging violin line, and anchoring bass work by Victor Krummenacher. The loping “Where the Hell is Bill” (a joke about their perpetually late, early drummer) finds the time to take three different rock subcultures (new wave; mod; punk) to task while also pondering the whereabouts of the absent percussionist.

The hardcore scene (mocked as well in the Valley stoner cover of Black Flag/the Circle Jerks’ “Wasted”) comes under attack once more in “Opi Rides Again/Club Med Sucks,” a riotous diatribe by a California teen documenting his resentment of his parents’ choice of vacation resort. The song alternates between verses that hijack highhanded proclamations (“They exploit the poor and the weak / I want no part of their death culture”) in order to justify a simple preference to hang out at Newport Beach, delivered in David Lowery’s distinctive drawl, and frenetic shouted choruses that simultaneously distill both the appealing and the ridiculous about punk sloganeering (“Club Med sucks! / Authority sucks! / I hate golf!”).

Elsewhere, “Oh No!” is a bizarre work of existential despair, nonetheless delivered with maximum sunniness, whereas the paranoia is dialed up on the dark “I Don’t See You.” “Ambiguity Song” is as close to straight pop as the band gets, and it’s thoroughly melodic, with more winning violin work by Segel. “The Day Lassie Went to the Moon” is unnerving (as Lowery’s vocals become more and more desperate and someone screams in the background), but somehow reassuring and humorous. “Tina” is an inscrutable polka that yet may be the most enjoyable moment on the album. A fearless, playful, exuberant work by a band that is almost certainly smarter than you, Telephone Free Landslide Victory is a classic.

Ephemera:  the title was supposed to be Telephone Tree Landslide Victory but someone misread the relevant word when pressing advance copies of the album.

The Best Thing About This Album

The obvious and eminently defensible choice is “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” but I am going to say that Jonathan Segel’s violin work as a whole is what I like most here.

Release Date

June, 1985

The Cover Art

I don’t like it, but I don’t hate it.

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