February 17, 2002

Harsh Realities At Crunch Time


"Blood and Chocolate" vs. "Key Lime Pie"
There comes a time in an artist’s career when brute force seems like the only course of action needed to complete a project. In almost every case, the effort is a Herculean waste of stamina, ego, and willpower- a last gasp of desperation before the known world crumbles. That is essentially true for both of these albums, but not necessarily the whole story, as both were creative impulses dominated by a single, unswerving totalitarian vision, namely that of Elvis Costello on the one hand and David Lowery on the other. Both albums are a hard listen at first, but ultimately succeed if heard as the final statement of unadulterated artistic ambition and the dashed hopes that inevitably result from one person’s attempts to make their idea a reality via a group effort.

“Blood and Chocolate”, currently reissued on Rhino with an extra bonus disc of rarities and outtakes (and possibly the best of the Rhino Costello reissues for the money) was originally recorded in early 1986 under some of the worst possible conditions for all involved. Costello had just released his bloated roots-rock opus “King Of America”, and though his longtime backing band the Attractions did appear on one track (“Suit of Lights”), that album was widely viewed as his solo debut and the inevitable result of declining quality Costello & Attractions albums. 1983’s “Punch the Clock” and especially 1984’s “Goodbye Cruel World” were embarrassingly subpar records, and Costello’s label in America, Columbia, was still pressing for him to remake his classic late 70’s albums “This Years Model” and “Armed Forces”, his commercial peaks. Costello’s typically acerbic and individualistic response was to reconvene the Attractions, who were still justifiably bitter about their recent dismissal, as well as producer Nick Lowe, whom he had not worked with for six years, and record his blunt and final answer to the label’s continual pestering.

Costello’s solution is an aural tooth-pull. His only concession to Lowe was recording the tunes live in takes, and using the best take of each. Other than that, Elvis did not swerve from his admittedly pissed-off and uncooperative vision. The players set up their instruments and PA in the large studio as if they were playing a concert, loud enough to be “something approaching stage volume”. This was a big no-no in the conventional recording sense, as it assured a bleeding sound over all tracks and made subtlety virtually impossible. What would be emphasized turned out to be blunt power, laced with a pathetic psychosis apparent in the lyrics of every tune, from the Margaret Thatcher-hating “Tokyo Storm Warning” and burnt kissoff “I Hope You’re Happy Now” to the stalking wretches in “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head” and especially “I Want You”, the album’s musical and lyrical apotheosis, a peak of paranoia and venom unmatched in Costello’s canon. Other songs like the opening one-chord-wonder “Uncomplicated” and closer “Next Time Round” book-end the album in a padding of noisy Telecaster and rapidly souring sentiment. The dementia, however fake, did the trick in more ways than one; after a tour in support of both this album and “King Of America”, Costello and the Attractions parted ways for the next eight years. Columbia, irked that they had been delivered a blatantly uncommercial record, were further annoyed when Elvis insisted that the two singles be the album’s six minute epics “Tokyo Storm Warning” and “I Want You”. The label, as Costello recalls, “hated that record” and subsequently “buried it under a rock in Utah somewhere”. Elvis paid for this tragically flawed record with a sales slump, a broken band, and an expired contract. He did not make another rock album until 1994’s “Brutal Youth” and 2002’s “When I Was Cruel”.

Camper Van Beethoven faced big problems in 1989 when recording what would be their swan song, the sprawling “Key Lime Pie”. Frontman David Lowery was already forcing the band toward tighter songwriting and a supposedly more commercial version of their self-described “surrealist-absurdist folk” on Camper’s previous album and major label debut, 1988’s “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart”. Producer Dennis Herring helped give that record the big-80s sound, with booming Springsteen drums and lots of reverb, but compared to the mainstream releases of the time it was positively spare. The irony was that on “Revolutionary Sweetheart”, Camper used the elements which made them most unique- violin, punky polka tempos, etc.- far more than on their previous indie albums. Lowery assumed more and more control of the writing, ushering out original violinist Jonathan Segel (who had argued against the relatively slick production) between “Revolutionary Sweetheart” and “Key Lime Pie”. The strain of making that album was not confined to those two, however, as the rest of Camper minus Lowery began work on the debut album of their side project, Monks of Doom.

All of this went into the blender when sessions began for “Key Lime Pie”. Camper’s rhythm section was there for the basic tracks, but ultimately the main players were Lowery, Herring, and guitarist Greg Lisher, as a Monks of Doom tour was booked for the middle of the new album sessions. In a further irony, the album’s sound coalesced into something very dry and quite stark, something that Segel had argued for passionately on the previous record, and it gave “Key Lime Pie” a windswept, Midwestern Biblical finality, not unlike Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding”, albeit on a smaller scale. Lowery’s lyricism had reached an epic level to which he would only sporadically return, but at the time, the new album’s first half, side-long skewering of American fatuousness in the age of Reagan/Bush was an overdue revelation. The same off-kilter sentiment that Camper had always used for good fun was now being fashioned into a weapon of extreme cynicism in the way that only fallen idealists can do, satirizing the myth of evil on “Jack Ruby”, suburban malaise on “I Was Born In A Laundromat”, degenerate capitalism on “When I Win The Lottery”, and apple-pie nostalgia on “Sweethearts”. The latter showed a markedly countrified influence and pointed the way that Lowery would take in his next band Cracker. “All Her Favorite Fruit” took a Faulkner-like cinematic aim at the conservative American South, and “Come On Darkness” unmercifully pleaded for the end of the world. Camper’s stomping cover of “Pictures of Matchstick Men” had a difficult birth as well, but ultimately became the band’s biggest hit on radio and MTV, despite the strain placed on the band’s relationship due to Lowery’s determination to finish the album at all costs.

Touring in support of “Key Lime Pie”, which was widely panned upon release (another quality it shares with “Blood and Chocolate”) drove the nail in Camper’s coffin. The band literally broke up in the air over Scandinavia, and Lowery made a quick exit upon landing in London. Camper found themselves in debt as well after a tour support accounting snafu, adding some bad icing to an already acrimonious breakup. David Lowery coasted into Cracker and flirted with the Billboard charts briefly with many albums of excellent material that did not seek the thematic heights of “Key Lime Pie”. The rest of the band went their separate ways only to tour again, in a manner of speaking, in 2000 with Cracker. Camper bassist Victor Krummenacher summed it up best, admitting “We made a bunch of good music, for not the happiest or most functional group of people, and then exploded after a lot of weirdness made it a young, dysfunctional, codependent time and a hard time to be in the band. A good record came out of it all, but we were a mess and getting worse at that point”.

Both albums are very strong statements of purpose, and are more appreciated now by fanatical cults than they were by the initial record-buying public. Sometimes they’re unlistenable- you have to be in the right mood to get into them, but both still hold great musical, lyrical, and compositional power.

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