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1 October 2010

Camper Van Beethoven - 'Key Lime Pie' (Virgin)

It's easy for me to think of this as something different than Camper Van Beethoven. Sure, it's most of the same band, and Jonathan Segel's is not reason enough to declare this to be the product of a different band. No, there's something else -something different about this record that makes it stand alone from the rest of their catalogue. So that's why I hesitate to call Key Lime Pie the best Camper Van Beethoven album, but the best and only album by this weird mutant formation that mostly resembles Camper Van Beethoven. Sure, the 'Opening Theme' sounds like a classic bit of CVB ethno-stomping, with maybe an even better raw production style than we've heard in a long time (Dennis Herring, you've finally got it!). But it's when the floortoms-and-brimstone of 'Jack Ruby' kicks in that I feel we have a different serpent entirely. Now, I first heard this record in high school so it conformed to the perfect model of art I imagined at the time; rock music against rock music, embracing neoclassical elements, traces of Americana, the Gold Soundz-grift that tingled me whenever I listened to 80s R.E.M. -- it's all here. In Summer of 1994 I was stuck in that awkward in-between time, unable to drive or do things on my own, forced to spend lots of hot summers in the minivan with my parents driving, my cheapo walkman providing my only escape until the batteries died and things got weird and slow. So I wore out my tape of Key Lime Pie. As we drove through Ohio interstate highways and suburban streets, with my body twisted sideways (ear against the backseat, constrained by seatbelt, looking up through the windows at sky) -- this is why 'Sweethearts' clicked into place. I would feel carsick but maybe just hot; the A/C never worked right, or just maybe didn't reach all the way to the back. I had to press my ear against the seat to keep one side of my $2 headphones from cutting out. I was confused by punk, metal, alternative music, the 60's, the 70's, the 80's, and my own adolescence. How could it all fit together? And did it matter? And at the time, 'Sweethearts' was the most magnificently beautiful blend of music I had ever heard. Greg Lisher's simple guitar lead said everything I wanted to hear; but the actual words were perfect too, steeped in some sort of American nostalgia that I invented myself a place in. 'Jack Ruby' now strikes me as even more than that - a pop song centered on searing darkness. 'All Her Favorite Fruit' is maybe the most celebrated David Lowery song and it's certainly the most confident step forward he ever made -it's delicate, and a bit magical too. And the humour is even more relaxed, as I wouldn't call 'When I Win the Lottery' or 'I Was Born in a Laundromat' particularly silly. The guitars have a heavy presence on Key Lime Pie, but when listening to this, I used to dream of becoming a violin player like Morgan Ficther -- it's funny how years later, I found out she barely even plays on this record apart from 'Pictures of Matchstick Men' (sadly, a hit, despite being the most throwaway track on here). The real violinist, Don Lax, contributes stunning sawing on 'June' (my pick of the litter for 2010) and the 'Opening Theme', and there's a chill that still passes over me when I hear 'Come on Darkness'. So forgive me if I sound a bit overdramatic or nostalgic about Key Lime Pie - it's not perfect, but it's perfect for what it is, and I don't think David Lowery (or any of these players) can ever top it.

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