the trouble with classicists

Let's start with this premise: there's a difference between being prescient and being a progenitor. Neither necessarily sees the future, but both—consciously, or unconsciously—represent what is to come. The real difference is the progenitor can be said to have actively made that future come about. Someone who is prescient is merely serendipitous. Velvet Underground were progenitors. Camper van Beethoven (and by some extension Cracker)—who I'd like to talk about, a bit, here—were prescient.

To say, 'merely' is a disservice, the pejorative equivalent of being ahead of your time. Camper van did—and still does—sound like nothing else out there, really. So what were they prescient of? In retrospect, their omnivorous absorption of musical history certainly seems truly ahead of its time.

Camper van Beethoven blended underground rock, ska and even dashes of Eastern European folk—occasionally in waltz time—to find an original voice. Sure, there was already punk proper (the screamy kind) and the nascent forms of much-more-straight-ahead indie rock (read: Replacements and REM), but in the college rock cafeteria, CvB had to eat at the freaks table; looked at askance even by the people others called weirdos. Fast forward to 1994, when Beck drops Mellow Gold and the Beastie Boys are peddling rap stew spiked with punk rock and vintage funk workouts and suddenly Camper van make perfect sense.

The closest thing they had to a hit was actually a cover of the august psychedelic chestnut, Pictures of Matchstick Men, which took off while the Pixies were just beginning to make ripples on the scene. Let's take a minute to also appreciate just how weird that hit really was. They unearthed a long-forgotten single you would expect find on the Nuggets collection of 60s garage rock. Even if that song was on Nuggets (it wasn't), that set wasn't reissued on CD until a decade after Key Lime Pie. The idea of espousing your love of obscure ephemera was not nearly such a thing as now, in the post-LCD Soundsystem new millennium.

By the early 90s—when everything was sounding distinctly more eclectic—Camper Van Beethoven had already ended. From their ashes, rose Cracker. As an avid fan of the former, the latter took me aback. Gone were the über-hyphenated genre mashups and in it's place was what could only be described as roots rock. Sure, roots rock with one hell of a sarcastic, snarky frontman, but this rawk was oddly primal. I came around quickly. It was too well done, too fun to resist, and (in a peculiar way) this realignment has proven prescient in its own right. It seems just as the alternative rock world was catching up to Camper van, Cracker was busy predicting ten years hence.

I came to this thought, as I was contemplating what a good run of just stone-cold classic sounding albums some of my favorite indie rock bands from the 90s were producing. From Superchunk to Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth to Mary Timony's Ex Hex: all producing music that sounded not just classic in quality but more capital-c Classic, in tone and color. These bands were giving the young-un's a course in Rock 101. Echoes of everything from the Stones to the Cars to Grateful Dead could be heard in it.

So we return to progenitor vs prescient. Did Camper van Beethoven spawn the voracious genre-hopping of the 90s? I think it's pretty safe to say: No. They were a niche, or even the niche of a niche. There are certainly plenty more prevailing forces, both market and cultural, that can explain that phenomenon. Did Cracker lay the seeds for the current fashion of indie-rockers returning to the epicenter of rock and pop? Even though Cracker was far more commercially successful than CvB, still the answer is: No. The grunge era hasn't been fully re-appreciated yet. Cracker hits are the sort still sneered at by the cognoscenti—at best, it's a guilty pleasure, thought of as a nostalgic throwback.

Perhaps though, we should give Cracker a second thought. Even if you're not influential enough to be a progenitor, being that prescient twice in one career is no mean feat.