Review Summary: A wonderful debut album by a creative, funny and overwhelmingly nice alternative rock band that is Camper Van Beethoven.
The 80's were a strange time in music. It's as if a wave of protest triggered by disco's overexposure in the late 70's went on for a whole decade, because a lot of new, fresh experimental underground movements were incredibly strong at that time. Then the 90's came to put 'em all on MTV, but that's a different story. What I'm leading up to is that in the wonderful little box of insanity that was the 80's music scene the appearance of a band like Camper Van Beethoven is all the stranger. Popping up practically out of nowhere in the middle of the decade when the underground scene was all about out-to-lunch post-punk and hardcore punk so rough and angry it would eat your mother if it could, they seemed so uncharacteristically... nice.
That is the exact first impression I had from this band. To that matter, they would seem non-confrontational even outside of the overpunked 80's scene. It also must have been the main reason I never heard much about them before I encountered a riff from their cover song on a "100 Great Riffs" video. Yeah, that much exposure. Because of how surprisingly unassertive (once again, compared to the other 80's bands) this music was, it took me 3 non-consecutive listens to finally grasp this band's charm that lay in their harmless, affable humour and their nonchalant approach to music. It meant a lot back when so many musicians were so painfully serious about their image, and to me it hasn't lost any of its value to this day.
However, while the music Camper Van Beethoven play is incredibly relaxing and pretty undemanding, it is also very complex in terms of influences, which there is a wide range of: Americana, Eastern European, folk, even some ska - all wrapped in a neat little alternative package. It is amazing what Jonathan Segel can do on his violin - and there is quite a number of violin-led tracks on Telephone Free Landslide Victory. You will find many instrumentals here, themed around the music of different countries (Mexico, China and Greece to name a few), where CVB shift their creative gears effortlessly to create short, simple yet very atmospheric, satisfyingly laid-back compositions. As I've already said, this album's focus is the violin, but it does not overshadow the rest of the instruments at all. Any of the songs off of TFLV would be impossible to cover using just one guitar or one violin, and in that respect this band resembles an orchestra, with the instruments intertwining to fuse together in a unique tasty cocktail. The attention to detail in the songs shows just how much effort the musicians have put into their work.
But of course we can't forget about the actual songs, which are, in indie rock's best tradition (I'm pretty sure this band is one of those that set these traditions in the first place), somewhere between observational and silly. Here we have "The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon", which I can't stop thinking of as a lighter, happier version of "Monkey Gone To Heaven", "Where The Hell Is Bill"", a song about a band meber who never showed up to rehearsals, and "Ambiguity Song", which doesn't go any further than the title suggests, and that's why it's so funny. Speaking of stupid and funny, this record also pokes fun at punk rockers a bit with a folk cover of Black Flag's "Wasted" and my personal favourite "Club Med Sucks", which is half the punk rock repertoire in a nutshell with lyrics like "I don't wanna be a part of their dead culture, I just wanna go to the beach".
In the end, Telephone Free Landslide Victory is a wonderful achievement, especially for a debut album of a band that went not only against the grain of mainstream pop, but against the grain of its own scene as well. Stellar musicianship combined with creativity and a portion of good self-referential fun equals a great start for one of the most delightfully unusual alternative rock bands I've come to know.