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Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker, and the Monks of Doom

Reviewed on this page:
Key Lime Pie - Cracker - Kerosene Hat - Gentleman's Blues

Rock music pretty much hit bottom in the early 1980s, with pretentious hair band pop and blustery, brain-dead corporate rock filling the airwaves. It's no surprise that the few nationally popular "alt rock" bands like the Bay Area's Camper Van Beethoven had serious attitude problems. CVB made no effort to sing seriously, wrote goofy lyrics filled with self-referential puns, and looked for inspiration to eclectic sources like Eastern European folk music. All of this was endearing, but frequently annoying. Obsessed with casting aside any hint of artistic pretension or materialism, CVB and contemporary American alt-rock bands like the dB's, REM, Sonic Youth, the Replacements, and the Minutemen ended up having just as much in common with 60s "alt" acts like the Band and the Velvet Underground as they had with either late 70s punk rock or New Wave. Watered down, over-amplified, and generally glitzed up, this approach mutated in the early 90s into the Seattle "grunge" sound of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and so on.

Camper Van Beethoven's original lineup assembled in Santa Cruz in the early 80s. They put out a series of albums in the mid-80s and became regional superstars, touring up and down the West Coast - I saw them live in Portland in about 1987 and it made a deep impression. In 1988 they finally made the big time, signing a contract with a major label (Virgin America) that resulted in two widely acclaimed albums. Unfortunately, the personnel problems that had caused them grief all throughout the decade soon took a fatal turn. Violinist/multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel, the key ingredient in their sound, left after their first major label release. Then in 1990 three of the members (bassist Victor Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher, and drummer Chris Pederson) quit and decided to get serious with their side-project Monks of Doom. That left frontman/rhythm guitarist David Lowery to his own devices: after a couple of years off, he resurfaced as the leader of the snottily commercial, Stones-style rock band Cracker.

A seemingly endless series of spin-off acts recorded albums after the original band dissolved. I can't even begin to document these records, so I've focused on the two CVB-derived bands mentioned above, both of which are pretty widely known: Cracker has had international commercial success, and the Monks of Doom put out four full albums before splitting. Jonathan Segel has released a series of albums over the last decade, both solo and with the groups Hieronymus Firebrain and Jack and Jill; since disbanding Monks of Doom, Victor Krummenacher also has put out several solo records of his own.

There's an extraordinarily detailed CVB web site with a good FAQ, discography, etc. I have used it rather shamelessly and gleefully to check facts on this page.


Camper Van Beethoven - Formed 1983 with Anthony Guess (drums), Victor Krummenacher (bass), Greg Lisher (guitar), David Lowery (guitar, lead vocals), Chris Molla (guitar, pedal steel guitar), Jonathan Segel (violin, keyboards, mandolin, viola, sitar, etc.). Guess left, 1986. Chris Pedersen (drums) added, late 1986. Molla left, 1987. Segel replaced by Morgan Fichter (violin), 1989. Band split, 1990. Most of the members contributed backing vocals.

Cracker - Formed about 1991 with Lowery, Davey Faragher (bass), Johnny Hickman (electric guitar, vocals). Michael Urbano (drums) added, 1993. Faragher and Urbano replaced by Charlie Quintana (drums) and Bob Rupe (bass) by 1996. Quintana and Rupe left, Faragher returned, by 1998.

The Monks of Doom - Formed 1986 with Lisher, Krummenacher, Molla and Pederson. Molla left, later in 1986, replaced by David Immerglück (guitar, vocals), ex-Ophelias. Band split, 1993.

Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985)
I have this one and I think it's pretty good, eclectic and frequently madcap fun. (JA)

II & III (1986)
With Guess out of the band, Molla fills in here on drums. (JA)

Camper Van Beethoven (1986)
Chris Pederson permanently joined the group at this point, and he appears here under the pseudonym "Crispy Derson." (JA)

Vampire Can Mating Oven (1987)
This is an EP that later ended up forming part of a compilation album (the 1993 rarities collection Camper Vantiquities) and also was appended to a CD version of Camper Van Beethoven. (JA)

Camper Van Chadbourne (with Eugene Chadbourne: 1987)
A one-off album featuring guitarist Eugene Chadbourne. (JA)

Breakfast On The Beach Of Deception (Monks of Doom: 1987)
A soundtrack album. I'm not at all sure about the order of release of this disc and the previous two ones from the same year. (JA)

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988)
Their first of two albums on Virgin. (JA)

Key Lime Pie (1989)
This time around the band sounds sharp but doesn't quite live up to its potential. Their country-western influences are more Western than country, which is a definite plus; the rhythm section is really solid; Greg Lisher plays some tastefully understated lead guitar; and with the band's original violinist having recently left, they recruit two fine players to fill in. Street musician Don Lax is eerily brilliant on the demented, Eastern European folk tune album opener ("Opening Theme") and sensuous on the country ballad "Sweethearts." Meanwhile Morgan Fichter is otherworldly on the otherwise pedestrian mid-tempo rocker "Flowers"; and on the record's most commerical tune (a stomping cover of Status Quo's 1968 hit "Pictures Of Matchstick Men"), her intelligent rendering of the lead riff adds just enough personality to make the proceedings worthwhile. And the rest of the group has enough ideas to keep things fresh: driving, Sonic Youth-style hard rock ("(I Was Born In A) Laundromat"), cheerful country ("Borderline"), REM-style balladry ("June"). But David Lowery subtracts more than he adds. Perhaps he's responsible for much of the songwriting, but his whining, ragged voice is so irritating you won't enjoy anything unless you ignore him. You can see why Cracker later had limited success. Still, though, he does come up with a pile of solid, just-jangly-enough rock tunes ("Jack Ruby"; "When I Win The Lottery"; "The Humid Press Of Days"). Still easily available a decade later, the album stands as one of the best examples of American "alt rock" right before the grunge thing hit. Produced by Dennis Herring. There are a couple of guests; Garth Hudson contributes a brief solo instrumental, playing a mournful pump organ ("Interlude"). (JA)

The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company (Monks of Doom: 1989)
I have this, and I think it's a pretty painful, scatter-shot effort, with excruciatingly bad vocals and a lot of anarchistic experimentation. (JA)

Meridian (Monks of Doom: 1991)
With CVB now gone for good, the Monks decided to record a much, much more serious artistic effort: there's a lot of hard-hitting rock with blistering lead guitar work, and the performances and songwriting here are so much better than on Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company that it's hard to believe you're listening to the same band - although the vocals are still more miss than hit. Taught, edgy, and eclectic, this is a reasonable example of alt rock at its best. (JA)

Cracker (Cracker: 1992)
After ditching CVB, Lowery decided to cash in with a blustering Classic Rock album so crafted and commercial it twists the sense of "alternative" beyond the point of any meaning. The "group" - Lowery, guitarist Johnny Hickman, and bassist Davey Faragher - is so artificial it has to use studio pros Rick Jaeger and Jim Keltner to fill in on drums. One of the key tracks ("Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)") nearly recycles the title of Nirvana's breakthrough hit, and the big power ballad has a refrain that blandly indicts its own lyrical formulas ("Another Song About The Rain," written by Hickman). As for the sound, it's a slick blend of hard rock a la the Stones and 70s CHR backing vocals a la Foreigner ("This Is Cracker Soul"), plus the obligatory pissed off nihilistic lyrics designed to appeal to teenagers ("Don't Fuck Me Up (With Peace And Love)"). The only thing making it distinctive is Lowery's gasping, whiny lead vocals. But goddamn him, he gets away with all of this. The tunes are consistently catchy ("Happy Birthday To Me"; "Satisfy You"), and there's some musical variety: they use Camper Van-style fiddle on a couple tracks ("Can I Take My Gun Up To Heaven?"), "I See The Light" has a clear Stax-Volt influence, and there are a couple of goofy cowboy music parodies ("Mr. Wrong"; "Dr. Bernice") with a little of Camper Van's personality. Produced by Don Smith; omnipresent keyboard player Benmont Tench is one of a few guests. (JA)

The Insect God (Monks of Doom: 1992)
A five track EP including a cover of "Who Are The Brain Police?" (JA)

Forgery (Monks of Doom: 1992)

Kerosene Hat (Cracker: 1993)
Sounding even more middle-aged than on their debut, here they go with completely generic old-school AOR ("Nostalgia") that frequently devolves into dull country-rock, which is once again lifted from the Stones (the sleepy cowboy blues-rock title track; "Sick Of Goodbyes"; "I Want Everything," patterned unsuccessfully on "Wild Horses"). It gets so bad that the boring "Take Me Down To The Infirmary" sounds like Mick Jagger fronting early-period Eagles. They even blow six minutes on a remarkably authentic-sounding cover of the Grateful Dead's shambolic country-blues "Loser." In light of this, almost all the fun is in the details: they use a talk box, some James Jamerson-like melodic bass noodling, and a fast, hand-clapping, MG's-style R & B beat on "Get Off This"; Faragher whips out a groovy bass line a la Duck Dunn on "Sweet Potato"; and Hickman takes the spotlight on a jokey, uptempo bluegrass sendup ("Lonesome Johnny Blues"). And they do score with a sharply arranged, chugging sing-along rocker ("Let's Go For A Ride"), a thumping power-pop anthem in the style of Cheap Trick ("Movie Star"), and best of all their churning, ominous hard-rocker "Low." Produced again by Don Smith, but the drummer this time is mostly Michael Urbano, if sometimes Phil Jones. (JA)

The Golden Age (Cracker: 1996)
Pop singer Joan Osborne guests on one track, and David Immerglück plays pedal steel. Faragher was temporarily gone, so there's a hired-gun rhythm section. (JA)

Gentlemen's Blues (Cracker: 1998)
The band's fourth album is more of the same: slickly produced, super-competent, late-period Stones-based AOR. Everything from the rhythm guitar patterns to the snappy blues leads to the female backing vocals to the drum and keyboard sound is utterly Stones-esque ("Seven Days," not the Dylan tune; "Waiting For You Girl"). Lowery's bleak "James River" is yet another rewrite of "Wild Horses," once again lacking a memorable anthem; the condescending Delta blues "Trials & Tribulations" retreads "Prodigal Son" (from Beggar's Banquet); and they recycle assorted Stones formulas from R & B shuffle ("Been Around The World") to mid-tempo country-rock ("Wild One"; "Wedding Day") to overdriven punkish rock ("The World Is Mine"). Their other sources are no more imaginative: there's a really slow Chicago blues (title track) and a soporific, bare-bones gospel tune ("Hallelujah"); "Wild One" is unabashed alt rock, and the slide guitar-fest "Star" has a mild Manchester dance beat. Only the occasional nods to Lowery's CVB roots really work: some snotty lyrics on "My Life Is Totally Boring With You"; a hypnotic, Plastic Ono Band-ish dirge ("Lullabye"); and a genuinely madcap polka ("I Want Out Of The Circus"). And the only really great moment is the hidden bonus track "Cinderella," a tension-building Stones-at-Muscle Shoals-style R & B epic with an excellent, but uncredited female guest vocal. Faragher guested on multiple tracks but the bassist is mostly Bob Rupe. Produced again by Don Smith; guests include Tench and ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson; Charlie Drayton and Steve Jordan fill in on drums. (JA)

So much for the opening theme.

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