Before alternative rock was a marketing ploy there was CVB, a group of Santa Cruz musicians who were truly alternative, mixing musical genres with elan, ease, and above all intelligence. Tex-Mex, Balkan and Eastern European sounds crossbred with ska, punk, folk, acid rock, and just about anything else the band thought might work well. And it invariably did; CVB, little known but loved among its fans, released a series of smart and increasingly assured albums throughout the 1980's. Telephone Free Landslide Victory, II & III, Camper Van Beethoven, and Vampire Can Mating Oven would throw the experimental, the improbable, and the incomprehensible cheek by jowl, and make it work. CVB was a hard band to get into-if only because their albums were so hard to come by-but once you did, you were hooked. I discovered the Camper Van Beethoven LP when I was in high school; after much head-scratching and cries of "What the hell is this?!" I found I had been listening to it for a week straight and now could not stop. I still have the cassette . . . and I still don't know what the hell it is, but I love it.
In the late `80's CVB was becoming more and more popular, touring with R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs (this was the only chance I had to see them live). They signed with Virgin and released the best work of their career, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. The experimentation was tightly controlled and accessible, and the band sounded like it was having more fun than ever.
Then came 1989's Key Lime Pie . . . and everything changed. Struggling with newfound popularity and the pressures of being a major-label band expected to sell records, CVB began to splinter. Multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel left, replaced by violinist Morgan Fichter; the others in the band struggled to fill Segel's shoes. Krummenacher and Pedersen left the following year, David Lowery went on to form Cracker, and CVB was no more. Key Lime Pie is an unintended elegy for the band, a stark journey through heartbreak, and the longing for things that will never be. There are songs that haunt, songs that cry, and songs that thrum with power . . . and yet which are no less elegiac for all that.
The instrumental that opens the album is a mysterioso, Eastern-influenced track, juxtaposed neatly with the searing "Jack Ruby"-and if anyone told me before this album that I'd love a song about Lee Harvey Oswald's assassin, I'd have laughed. But "Ruby" takes the unfocused anger over Oswald's murder, and turns it into dissonant, brittle brilliance. Next up is the melodious "Sweethearts," a bizarre trip into the mind of Ronald Reagan (written before his Alzheimer's was diagnosed), where missions over China, WWII, Dixon, and Mom all intermingle; the result is a delightful, wistful ode to a man unsure just who he is, but who knows who he should be.
And there's a lot of that in this album. Key Lime Pie is in large part about the search for identity in dreams-balancing the suspicion on one hand the desire for something better than what is, and the angry realization on the other of the obstacles barring those dreams' fruition. Song after song-the sly, wry "When I Win the Lottery," "The Humid Press of Days," "(I Was Born in a) Laundromat," with its angry cries of "just give us some tension release," and most of all "June" and "All Her Favorite Fruit,"- struggle with that frustration; "Laundromat" seethes with it. The dark rock waltz "June" and the majestic, heartbreaking "All Her Favorite Fruit" sigh with it.
In a way, those latter two tracks form the album's centerpiece. The first states "There is nothing in this world/More bitter than love." The second proves that thesis with lyrics about a man longing for a woman, and whose longing leads him into a startling and wild fantasy about living with her in a tropical semi-paradise "within intervention's distance of the embassy"-one of many lyrical curlicues dropped in that make the song's narrator at once a bit creepy and totally sympathetic. The instrumental break, with Fichter's violin, is so eloquent of loneliness and aching, the music raises chills. It may well be CVB's finest moment as a band, and those two tracks alone make Key Lime Pie worth having.
There are many more reasons, however, from the eerie "Flowers," to the broken-step waltz of "The Light From a Cake," the ska-laced lament of "Borderline," the seesawing rhythms of "The Humid Press of Days." And then come the final two tracks, which probably do a better job than I ever could of summing up what CVB is, and how good they really are. First is an astonishingly good cover version of Status Quo's garage-rock psychedelic quasi-classic, "Pictures of Matchstick Men," featuring Fichter's echo-drenched violin in place of the keyboard figure, to great improvement of the song. CVB reworks an old chestnut into something new and different here, and does so in unforgettable fashion.
Closing the album is "Come on Darkness," as haunting a cry for surcease as I have ever heard. It's a song about weariness, about the need for rest and silence. You hear it reflected both in the excellent lyrics and the slow, purposeful strum of an acoustic guitar, laced with echoey slide guitar figures in the background, backed with steady, hammering drums that feel like the heartbeat of the world's weariest man. "Come on Darkness" can be seen as the band's unconscious farewell to itself, an elegy for a short-lived and extremely creative band that produced some of the best (though unfortunately not the best-known) music of the 1980's. Key Lime Pie is still one of my favorite albums, one I listen to after over ten years while other albums by "name artists" have fallen by the wayside, and one I recommend unreservedly to anyone who loves good music and good fun. There's plenty to be had with CVB.