Camper Van Beethoven – Key Lime Pie

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

I don’t remember if I got into Camper before or after I got into Cracker. Probably after. Either way, I really appreciate David Lowery’s sense of humor, though I always felt that Cracker was much more his vehicle than CVB. Still, I think Camper Van Beethoven is amazing. If they had stuck around, they could have been a great American band in the way that very few others could. Which isn’t to say that they are not a great American band – I just mean they could have, maybe, become icons, like a cooler NRBQ or more Anglo Los Lobos or more eclectic and less self-satisfied Blasters or more focused and tuneful Grateful Dead. Their ability to combine sounds – particularly those with a particular stars and stripes and blue jeans heritage – was unparalleled. They ignored blues and soul, but otherwise were able to weave together the various strands of the American musical diaspora AND also marry them to ethnic influences. That they did so with a smile and a smirk, taping “kick me” signs onto everyone’s back, was a bonus.

What I Think of This Album

There is a foreboding gloom to this album, which is unusual for a band that normally came across as a group of merry pranksters. The snarky liner notes do not hint at the bleakness within, nor does the bright cover art. But things were clearly amiss, as Jonathan Segel was gone by the time of recording, and the band broke up shortly after this release. It’s hard to believe only four years separate this from Telephone Free Landslide Victory.

Standout track “Jack Ruby” is emblematic of the album, with a dense, claustrophobic sound, and a dangerous lead courtesy of guitarist Greg Lisher, a sawing violin part from guest Don Lax, declarative snare drum hits, and tight backing harmonies. Lowery’s lyrics are evocative, deftly painting a picture of the unstable criminal:  “He seems like the kind of man / Who beats his horses” and “He’s a friend of that cloven-hooved gangster, the devil.” Another gem is “Sweethearts,” in which Lowery deconstructs Ronald Reagan with deceptive sweetness, describing a man completely out of touch with the real world (“‘Cause he’s always living back in Dixon / Stuck in 1949 / And we’re all sitting at the fountain, at the five-and-dime / ‘Cause he’s living in some B-movie / The lines they are so clearly drawn / In black and white life is so easy”).

The socio-political commentary continues on the humorous “When I Win the Lottery,” narrated by the step-father to Cracker’s “Mr. Wrong,” who knows exactly who he is and who he isn’t; after plainly recounting his checkered past, he observes “Never run a flag up a pole / Like Mr. Red, White, and Blue down the road / But I never called myself a hero for killing a known Communist.” The violin work on this track is superb. Tension remains the dominant theme on the coiled, dark “(I Was Born In a) Laundromat,” with more whip-stinging work from Lisher and pounding drums; this could easily be a Cracker song. “Borderline” provides a little break, a gentle but still grey country-ska number.

“The Light From a Cake” is a disturbing waltz, with some schizophrenic violin work and Lowery admitting:  “I am waiting for the heaviness in the air to break / And reveal some small relevant truth.” There is almost a martial feel to the odd “June,” a bizarro take on the seasons and love – “There is nothing in this world more bitter than spring.” The extended coda features yet more unsettling violin explorations from Lax. “All Her Favorite Fruit” is a ripe yet sad fantasy, with a moving and heartfelt vocal from Lowery and sweet tones from Lax.

The album admittedly loses steam towards the end. “Flowers” seems a bit pedestrian. “The Humid Press of Days” sounds a lot like “Jack Ruby,” with a similar plodding feel and the same sing-speak from Lowery. Odd. The cover of the Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” is fine, but seems like an unusual choice. Morgan Fichter ended up being Segel’s replacement on violin, but she only played on this song and “Flowers,” though she sang harmony on several tracks. The album ends with the suicidal meandering of “Come On Darkness.” There are two instrumentals:  the discordant “Opening Theme” and slight “Interlude.”

Davey Faragher (Cracker) once again sings backup, and Band organist Garth Hudson contributes, too. The producer was Dennis Herring for the second album in a row.

The Best Thing About This Album

“All Her Favorite Fruit” is pretty and sad.

Release Date

September, 1989

The Cover Art

Another winner from Bruce Licher. The colors are excellent, and I dig the composition. The blurry shot is cool, as is the ghostly background image.

One thought on “Camper Van Beethoven – Key Lime Pie

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  1. This is an outstanding album review. Listening to this album is hard work/high reward. No “take the skinheads bowling” cuts on this album, but the songs get under your skin like a colony of scabies and spend the rest of their life there. MY kids have loved ‘when I win the lottery’ since they were little tykes.

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