Note: This is a four-star album that unfortunately has lost a star due to a bad reissue.
Camper Van Beethoven was one of the quintessential eighties bands. Their highly ironic worldview and eclectic musical style prefigured the nineties in some ways, and more to the point, they were just plain good. They wrote some excellent songs, and they had a really impressive repertoire of styles. It's fitting that this album, their third, was self-titled, because it arguably captures the band at the height of its powers. By this time, they were writing more melodic material but they still embraced the sloppy aesthetic that was one of the trademarks of their early period.
Before going any further, though, I have to admit that this 2004 reissue does not do justice to the original album. With the reissue, somebody made the horrendous decision to put the bonus tracks in the MIDDLE of the running order instead of at the end--thus, an album that already verged on being overlong is now definitely too long. Worse yet, two of the four extra tracks are songs that were included on later albums anyway ("Pope Festival" is "The Fool" with a different title). This means that you have a huge momentum killer right smack in the middle, with three unnecessary songs in a row, plus an additional short instrumental ("Deux Foises") that pops up a few songs later. As a final insult, the instrumental "Stairway to Haevan (sic)" is available here only in an alternate version, so you can't use your iTunes to recreate the original album even if you want to. If you still buy vinyl, you might want to find a copy of the original so you can hear the album at its best.
But enough of the bad stuff. There is plenty of good here, even if you're stuck with the reissue. "Good Guys and Bad Guys" starts things off with a wheezing Casio keyboard sound, lots of violin, and droll lyrics that sound downright innocent after all these years: "So just get high while the radio's on/Just relax and sing a song." The second song, "Joe Stalin's Cadillac," is equally droll and funny and is set to a fast country/ska beat of the sort that was favored by CBV. "We Saw Jerry's Daughter," which pokes gentle fun at Deadheads, is another highlight of the album's first half.
The second half of the album is a bit more difficult but also more interesting. There are two songs here, "The History of Utah" and "Peace and Love," that conjure up the spirit of the American West. The former is apparently an irreverent and delightfully incoherent spoof on the Mormons, and the latter is a spooky, druggy spoken-word piece about a road trip, set to swirling psychedelic music. It is slightly reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's spoken word pieces; I'm thinking of "The Gift" and "The Murder Mystery" in particular. There are also some more lighthearted songs. "We Love You" is my personal favorite. It's sort of a California stoner version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
If you're just getting interested in Camper Van Beethoven, this album is a good place to start, or you could check out their fourth album, "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart," which was their major label debut and featured basically the same lineup of musicians as this album, but a more polished sound. The first two CBV albums are more chaotic and may take a little more getting used to, but they have some great moments. Unfortunately, they also suffer in their reissued form, with bonus tracks in the middle. You don't have to worry about that with the major label albums.