The college-rock explosion of the mid-to-late 1980s was a fertile, creative time, even though the genre gets written out of the rock history books, thanks to the burgeoning “alternative rock” scene and subsequent “grunge explosion.” College-rock bands were melodic, a little rock, and not particularly ashamed of showing some ambition–after all, R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs obtained success while still maintaining credibility, and were still producing cool, literate music, even though they were charting and getting played on on mainstream radio.
So it was that California-based Camper Van Beethoven, a band that had released a handful of albums independently, signed to Virgin Records. In spite of the somewhat ludicrous liner notes offered up in one of these reissues, the notion of “selling out” wasn’t an issue; their label didn’t try to turn them into Poison or John Cougar Mellencamp; and the quality of their music didn’t change.
Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart is the sound of a band operating at the peak of its abilities, a band knowing what it does best and doing it, and using the opportunities afforded them thanks to their new business partnership. With the ability to spend plenty of time in the studio and to experiment with sound, Camper Van Beethoven handed in a record that both defies classification and stimulates the listener with sounds and songs that are experimental and yet somehow traditional.
It’s the mandolin.
Really, though, in the era where bands like The Arcade Fire and Bon Iver win Grammy awards, it’s easy to forget just how utterly weird this album was. On one hand, it doesn’t radically differ from the albums that preceded it–quirky and strange, with surreal songs based around roots-rock instrumentation. As the introduction to the band to a larger population–myself included–there was something utterly exotic about Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. It starts off great–“Eye of Fatima,” both parts, is very compelling. Here’s a guy singing about a coked-out drug-dealing guy who is drinking too much, living in a trashy apartment, and hanging out with teenage goth girls. This most definitely was not the metal or the pop crap that you’d hear on the radio, it was something oblique, something obtuse, and something wonderfully weird. Then it goes into a gypsy-style instrumental, and then launches into “O Death,” a traditional folk number that they made their own.
And then it gets better.
I don’t want to give away too much, because Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart is an audio Matryoshka, revealing something new with each listen and with each passing track, and telling too much of the secrets will ruin it for those who haven’t heard it before. Personally, I’m fond of “She Divines Water,” a love song that’s one of the weirdest you’ll hear, mixing many metaphors in a haphazard way and coming out with something unique and beautiful. I’m also a fan of “Waka,” a simple instrumental that is far from simple, and “Life Is Beautiful” is a song that serves the sentiment well.
The bonus tracks round up the b-sides from the era, and also offer up several live recordings, which find the band taking on both originals and covers, including songs by The Stranglers (“Hanging Around”), Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”), and The Damned (“Smash it Up”). They’re clearly having a fun time up there, playing their hearts out, being true to who they were, enjoying life. They’ve always been a live band at heart, and this shows why–how could you not have a good time at a show when a band is playing this well?
Key Lime Pie, however, is a mixed bag. Produced again by Dennis Herring, it’s a record that is a continuum of its predecessor, and the songs are almost fungible in production style, yet it’s hard to listen to Key Lime Pie and not notice that something feels off. The songs are a bit more straightforward; the quirkiness feeling forced, the cleverness no longer feels clever. It’s telling that the song that garnered attention was a cover of “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” Behind the scenes, things had changed; longtime member Jonathan Segel was gone, and this change surely affected the band. Listening to the bonus material,it’s easy to hear a tired band; their clever, humorous single “Take The Skinheads Bowling” feels positively perfunctory. Not surprisingly, then, that the band split up shortly after its release, Key Lime Pie prematurely winding up in the cutout bin before Lowery returned with a more mainstream-minded project, Cracker. I couldn’t get into its groove then, and twenty-five years later, I still can’t; the record just doesn’t gel, and it pales in comparison to everything before it. At the time, the coolest thing I thought about the record was that the cassette was lime green.
Still, it was a good run, the 1980s. Camper Van Beethoven’s legacy lives on, in spite of the disappointing finale and the bitter split-up. The diversity of sound found on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart is taken for granted now, but twenty-five years ago, it was a foreign, quiet revolution, a sweetheart of a record that is beloved by those who heard it and a generation of fans who have taken the time to explore and investigate this overlooked band.