Time hasn’t been especially kind to Camper Van Beethoven, the 80s band from Santa Cruz, California, that was a veritable showroom model of what used to be called “college rock” (before it was rechristened “alternative rock”). To the extent that they’re remembered, it’s usually as the group that eventually gave birth to Cracker, which lead songwriter David Lowery formed when CVB split up in 1990. While I enjoyed the easygoing strum of their 1985 college-radio hit “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” CVB’s first few records did little but irritate me, because the flip side of that song’s absurd charm was silliness and gee-aren’t-we-clever self-regard. Sometimes they were spot-on in observing the mores of middle-class northern California privilege, but at other times they failed to recognize how they embodied it themselves. The records were painfully uneven, with hooky melodies offset by aimless jamming and ham-fisted stylistic mashups. But these days I have greater appreciation for what the band was trying to do—they were way ahead of the game in terms of blending art-rock with everything from ska to psychedelia to eastern European traditional music.
The band signed with Virgin Records toward the end of the decade and made two albums before splitting up: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart in 1988 and Key Lime Pie in 1989. CVB finally won me over with these records because they learned how to edit themselves and put the focus squarely on the music. Both were reissued earlier this month by Omnivore Recordings, each larded with previously unissued live material. The first contains its fair share of classic songs—”Eye of Fatima (Pt. 1)” and “One of These Days,” for instance—but the awful, boomy drum sound imparted by producer Dennis Herring can make it a slog. Still, my memory had told me that it was the better of the two records, but revisiting these reissues has disabused me of that notion: Key Lime Pie is more assured, daring, and coherent. Multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel had left the band before they recorded Key Lime Pie—he formed the other post-CVB band, the proggy Monks of Doom—but new member Morgan Fichter provided a better balance to CVB’s mixture of hard-rock bombast and folk-rock rusticity with her fiddle and accordion. Aside from a convincing cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” there’s not much in the way of novelty, and that’s why it stands up better than any record in their oeuvre. The album’s diversity made it hard to choose something for today’s 12 O’Clock Track, but I ended up going with the midtempo strummy beauty of “Sweethearts.”