Cheese and Crackers
David Lowery’s two-band circus
by Rick Levin
The history of Camper Van Beethoven is, to a large extent, the history of David Lowery’s development and evolution as one of our most slyly talented singer-songwriters working the overplowed fields of what is now called alt rock. Lowery was a singer who couldn’t sing before not being able to sing became a feather in your indie cap; he was oozingly ironic and snarky before those traits passed as the underground’s obligatory calling card; and he hid his apocalyptic political agenda and social contrarianism behind a haze of goof and pot smoke that still seems way ahead of its time. None of this would have meant jack-all if Lowery had not been a gifted songwriter as well, capable of unspooling gorgeously awkward and interesting melodic runs that catch in your brain like burrs on wool socks.
Like Radiohead and Beck, whose first “hit” singles threatened to pigeonhole these artists as fleetingly hip idiots savant, Camper Van Beethoven’s 1985 debut single “Take the Skinheads Bowling” was a thoroughly enjoyable pop song that wove Mad Hatter lyrics of lysergic nonsense into an anthem for anti-hippie stoners. And, similar to those aforementioned music makers, Camper’s apparent one-hit-wonderism was footnoted by a career that shot like a rocket from the hinterlands of college music. For me, the history of CVB really begins with their “sell out” to Virgin Records, where the band produced two of the greatest and most durable albums of the late ’80s, the pop gem Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and the criminally misunderstood and misunderestimated Key Lime Pie, which played out as a kind of wonkydoodle concept album skewering ’80s greed and cultural amnesia with blistering wit, deep intelligence and a disarming atmosphere of pathos and loss. The latter album — which would be Camper’s last for a decade — contains some of Lowery’s finest work to date, most notably “All Her Favorite Fruit” and “Sweethearts,” a faux-nostalgic lament that, you only learn in the distressing final stanza, takes place entirely in the head of our 40th president: “’Cause in the mind of Ronald Reagan / the wheels they turn, the gears they grind / buildings collapse in slow motion and trains collide / everything is fine…”
People talk shit about Cracker, the group Lowery assembled after Camper disbanded, but I ain’t one of ’em. There’s no question Cracker is a more streamlined, radio-friendly unit — Camper Van Beethoven’s “kitchen sink” approach found them attempting everything from space jams and waltzes to Middle Eastern squelch, prog-rock and puzzled-together pastiches of Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and three-bar punk — but Lowery’s songwriting remained sharp and sonically memorable. The band’s first album was full of stripped-down, amped-up singalongs that roamed wildly while somehow sticking close to Lowery’s roots in country/folk Americana. There followed a string of minor, left-of-the-dial hits like “Low” and “I Hate My Generation,” but it is such off-the-cuff masterpieces as “Euro-Trash Girl” that find Lowery at his cheeky best, caught between love and loathing for the culture that bred, and then bent, his unique talent.
The late ’90s and double-aughts witnessed the unlikely reunion of Camper Van Beethoven, which in 2004 produced the excellent New Roman Times, with Lowery all the while keeping Cracker from crumbling. The latest Cracker single, “Tune In Turn On Drop Out with Me” from the recently released Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, is vintage Lowery — self-mocking and sentimental all at once, with his tongue planted firmly in cheek and his heart sewn haphazardly to his sleeve. Whether bundling Camper and Cracker together on one “Traveling Apothecary Show” amounts to some dog-and-pony shtick, artistic arrogance or simply middle-aged convenience doesn’t really matter: Any way you bark it, this circus is well worth the price of admission.
Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker. 9 pm Friday, Aug. 20. WOW Hall • $18 adv., $20 door.