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Cracker (1992)


7.5

 

Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now) / Happy Birthday to Me / This Is Cracker Soul / I See the Light / St. Cajetan / Mr. Wrong / Someday / Can I Take My Gun to Heaven? / Satisfy You / Another Song About the Rain / Don’t Fuck Me Up (With Peace and Love) / Dr. Bernice

CrackerOne of those bands that are hard to categorize, Cracker’s history seems to situate itself on the thin line between mainstream rock ‘n roll and rootsy alt-rock. Too conventional and 70’s-inspired to ever become really hip, but also too quirky to ever become a mass favorite, Cracker stubbornly keeps releasing albums that combine the best from both early influences such as The Band, The Rolling Stones (with Richards as a particularly prominent influence) and The Grateful Dead; and more ‘alternative’ subject matter, occasional experiments and ingredients seemingly out of place. Singer/guitarist David Lowery is mainly remembered as front man of 80’s college-favorite Camper Van Beethoven, a wildly eclectic bunch that mixed rock with all kinds of world music imaginable and actually pulled it off. Cracker (the core of which consisted of Lowery (vocals, guitar), Johnny Hickman (guitar, vocals) and Davey Faragher (bass, and currently a member of Elvis Costello’s backing band)) is much more concerned with making simple rock ‘n roll, infused with elements from folk and country. Among the few session musicians are notorious side-men such as Jim Keltner (Ry Cooder, J.J. Cale, Richard Thompson, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, etc) and Benmont Tench (member of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Johnny Cash, The Jayhawks, Warren Zevon, etc).

The album’s opener, “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” is a track that sounds as if it was recorded to be played in a car at maximum volume. It’s hard-rocking, catchy, and has some provocative (“What the world needs now is a new Frank Sinatra, so I can get you in bed, cause what the world needs now is another folk singer, like I need a hole in my head”) and ridiculing lyrics (“What the world needs now are some words of wisdom like la la la la la”). Quite similar is the heartland-rocker “Don’t Fuck Me Up (With Peace and Love),” which shows that 4 chords and a bag of hooks can get you anywhere. The bouncy “Happy Birthday To Me,” with some simple harmonica is a fine example of Cracker mixing folk and rock. It’s a bit of a silly song, but it works. The funky “This Is Cracker Soul” is another track that’s guaranteed to bring you in a good mood, with falsetto backing vocals and lines such as “Hey hey it’s okay to make a little mess out of your life.” The first half of the album’s even stronger because of “I See the Light,” which is a bit too long (5:11), but which has some nice sounding guitars, a great chorus and Jeanie McClain providing great backing vocals. The Hickman-penned “Mr. Wrong” predates Kerosene Hat’s country song “Lonesome Johnny blues” and tells the story of a loser trying to impress a girl in a less obvious way: “I drive a one-eyed Malibu without a muffler, and a tape deck that works if you kick it hard enough, and baby if you like to read I’ve got some great pornography, and a ten pound flashlight rolling in the truck.”

Losers also wind up in a few of the album’s slow songs. In “St. Cajetan,” we’re witnessing a prayer for a cool drink of water, while the protagonist of “Can I Take My Gun to Heaven?”, a prison guard with an adulterous wife, seems to have only one love left. Melancholy fills the desolate-sounding Hickman-sung ballad “Another Song About the Rain,” and the poppier “Someday,” which is probably the album’s most accessible song, an example of Cracker showing their melodic inventiveness and sparse but precise arrangements in which every note has its place. The album’s last track, the waltz “Dr. Bernice,” features only bass, some percussion and an acoustic guitar but works well, although the rather weird lyrics (“Baby don’t you drive around with Dr. Bernice, she’s not a lady doctor at all, she’s got hands like a man with hair on the back, she’’ll crush you with her embrace”) are quite a contrast to the desert soundtrack.

A fine debut with not one bad song, Cracker proved that Lowery’s second project was worth checking out, despite the abandonement of the absurd leanings of CVB. Firmly placing itself in a mainstream rock tradition, but with the addition of folk and country elements and a ‘different’ attitude, this debut record boasts several songs that belong on any ‘forgotten gems’-collection. The fact that some songs go on for too long (“I See the Light,” “Can I Take My Gun to Heaven,” “Another Song About the Rain”), does not diminish the fact that Cracker is an album well worth having.

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Kerosene Hat (1993)


8.5

 

Low / Movie Star / Get off This / Kerosene Hat / Take Me Down to the Infirmary / Nostalgia / Sweet Potato / Sick of Goodbyes / I Want Everything / Lonesome Johnny Blues / Let’s Go for a Ride / Loser / (Euro-Trash Girl)

Kerosene HatOn their debut, the power-trio of Hickman, Faragher and Lowery had already proven that they were a very capable and promising band, but one that was difficult to categorize. Kerosene Hat continues in this direction, but makes a clear improvement in the song-writing and performing department. Cracker’s sound remains a combination of laidback 70’s rock (with The Rolling Stones as most obvious point of reference) and accessible, rock-oriented Americana, though. This time around, however, the band gets a more full-bodied and warm sound, a sound that gives both more intimacy to the quieter songs, and more muscularity to the songs that actually rocked. Kerosene Hat is also probably their most popular album to date. It boasted one fairly successful single (“Low” got lots of airplay around here), and it also got generally very positive reviews from the music press. Among the band’s fan base, the album is also still regarded as their finest hour.

“Low” kicks off the album in a great way, with that typical laidback groove of theirs, alternated with a simple and catchy chorus that’s instantly recognizable (you have heard “I’ll be with you girl, like being low, hey hey hey, like being stone,” right?). The next track, “Movie Star,” is a hard-rocking, faster track which, like “Teen Angst” on the debut, showed that the band didn’t always settle for a mid-tempo groove, but sometimes also opted for a raucous setting for their ridiculous lyrics (“Well the movie star well she crashed her car, but everyone said she was beautiful even without her head, everyone said she was dangerous”). Similar in nature is the raunchy hard-rocking song “Let’s Go for a Ride.” The band also delves into playful folk-rock, with the bouncy and jangly “Get Off This”, and into tough, bluesy rock, with the pumping “Sweet Potato” that has a cool riff and semi-distorted, silly vocals by Lowery. The title track, on the other hand, is a very slow and brooding song that benefits from a great production job, and sounds really intimate. It’s followed by the even better “Take Me Down to the Infirmary,” which could be seen as Kerosene Hat’s “Dr. Bernice,” as it’s a gorgeous piece of Americana, and uses the best from folk, country and blues, just like the longer (read: slightly overlong) “I Want Everything.” Perhaps “Kerosene Hat” and “Take Me Down to the Infirmary” shouldn’t have been put after each other, since they seriously disrupt the pace that was built up during the albums first three songs, but that’s soon made up by the song that follows them: “Nostalgia” is one of the album’s best songs, an excellent, poppy track with a lovely melody and great chorus. It’s one of those songs that are immediately right, not too long or too short, with each note necessary, and that gets a maximum result from just the basics. “Sick of Goodbyes” is a song that Lowery co-wrote with Mark Linkous, and it’s a great, pumping track, which Linkous would also record for the second album (Good Morning Spider) of his band, Sparklehorse. There’s also a speed-country song, written and sung by guitarist Johnny Hickman, “Lonesome Johnny Blues”, a fun track that’s always a concert favourite. The album’s last regular track (the CD has 99 tracks, most of them just a few seconds long) is “Loser,” a song originally written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, featured on Garcia’s ’72 solo debut (although the Dead would play it, too). The lengthy song, a tale about gambling (“If I had a gun for every ace I have drawn, I could arm a town the size of Abilene”) and losing (“Put your gold money where your love is baby, before I let my deal go down”), features some great laidback musicianship that, like lots of Garcia’s best stuff, seamlessly combines the best of folk and country into an irresistible whole. Finally, there’s a remarkable hidden track (no. 69), the lengthy travelogue “Euro-Trash Girl”, which has become a classic in the band’s catalogue, and which is probably one of the few ‘hidden’ tracks that are really worth checking out. While the length and structure are unusual (the band reaches the chorus only after three minutes and several verses), it’s a delightfully fun track with a ramshackle chorus and hilarious lyrics (“Got a tattoo in Berlin, and a case of the crabs, a rose and a dagger on the palm of my hand, and I’ll search the world over for my angel in black, yeah I’ll search the world over for a Euro-Trash Girl”). At the same time, it makes for a great coda to an excellent album by a band that improved on their quirky debut by turning in a great set of original songs.

 

Reader comments:


Jay Jarrett (Planet Earth):
Just curious why you didn't mention "Take Me (Back) To You" on track #88 or "Kerosene Hat [Out take]" on track #99?


 

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The Golden Age (1996)


7.5

 

I Hate My Generation / I’m a Little Rocket Ship / Big Dipper / Nothing to Believe in / The Golden Age / 100 Flower Power Maximum / Dixie Babylon / I Can’t Forget You / Sweet Thistle Pie / Useless Stuff / How Can I Live Without You / Bicycle Spaniard

The Golden AgeIt took Lowery & Co. 3 years to come up with a follow-up to the excellent Kerosene Hat and, despite the less positive reviews, I must say it was certainly worth the wait. The Golden Age is a slightly ‘different’ Cracker album, but still a good one nevertheless, on which they introduce elements they hadn’t used before. First of all, the album sounds a lot more “produced”. With this I don’t mean to imply that it sounds cheesier or anything (well, maybe it does during the album’s quieter songs), but just that they obviously spent more time in the studio, since the range of studio musicians and instruments used is a lot wider than before. While bass and drumming duties are taken up by Bob Rupe (member of The Silo’s) and Charlie Quintana (former member of Izzy Stradlin’s Ju Ju Hounds), most of the tracks also feature session musicians playing keys, pedal steel, singing backing vocals, etc.

Secondly, it’s certainly Cracker’s least rootsy album. Despite the presence of pedal-steel, the country-influences have diminished, and have been replaced by a much tougher rocking core. By consequence, a lot of music fans considered this album Cracker’s belated attempt at making a grunge album. Well, I don’t know what the reasons were for thinking that (and I don’t agree that it sounds like a grunge album), but I certainly like what they did.

“I Hate My Generation” is undoubtedly the loudest song the band ever recorded, one that hesitates between stomping hard-rock and brutal garage-rock, with an intense vocal performance by Lowery. It has been called ‘ugly’ and ‘horrible,’ but at least it has a mighty drive that propels it forward and turns it into a massive piece of rock. There are a few more songs that are louder than your average Cracker song: “Nothing to Believe in,” for example, has the same good-sounding crunching guitars, and backing vocals by Joan Osborne (yep, the lady who wondered about God), but somehow it starts to drag a bit after a while (which is something that regularly happens in a Cracker song, which is perhaps the result of their trademark laidback groove). “Sweet Thistle Pie,” with its pummeling guitar and harmonica intro, unashamedly goes the hard-rock way, with tough power chords, soulful backing vocals and a concrete chorus. “100 Flower Power Maximum” is the album’s “Let’s Go for a Ride,” a speedy, hard-rocking track that sounds wild and reckless. Too bad they added too many unnecessary details though, like the strings that become really intrusive after a while. But hey, it’s a short song, so what am I complaining about? Also short, but slightly better, is the charming “Useless Stuff,” an overlooked gem in the band’s catalogue, and one that combines the best of both power-pop and folk-rock. Something completely different, and more proof of the fact that they might have turned in their most varied album yet, is “How Can I Live Without You,” which is closer to southern rock than anything before, with those funky blues licks and that catchy chorus that could have been written in the early 70’s. “Big Dipper” is yet again something else entirely. Probably one of the most touching songs they ever recorded, it features some great musical details (economical use of pedal steel guitar, a beautiful guitar solo, muted piano playing), and a subtle vocal performance by Lowery, who delivers some of his most heartfelt lyrics yet. Slightly more mid-tempo, but equally soothing, is the title track, on which Hickman makes great use of baritone guitar, and on which the strings didn’t even bother me. Left are the two tracks that don’t do much for me, and funnily enough, they’re both tracks that many people consider the album highlights: “Dixie Babylon” is a 7-minute piece of gentleness, which has an atmosphere that reminds me somewhat of the previous album’s title track. However, it takes too long to actually get started, and by the time it reaches the more intense part, my interest has waned. The other one is “I’m a Little Rocket Ship,” which has a chorus that I can’t be bothered with, and which suffers a bit from a slightly overdone production job. But hey, for the most part The Golden Age is a thoroughly satisfying album that offers a new and tougher Cracker, a versatile band willing to abandon the more conventional Americana for a while (until the next album, that is). By consequence, some of their fans, probably the ones who preferred their traditionalist approach, were a bit dissatisfied, but I’d strongly recommend them to listen again, since The Golden Age unveiled several surprises I only discovered after repeated listens.

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Gentleman's Blues (1998)


8

 

The Good Life / Seven Days / Star / James River / My Life Is Totally Boring Without You / Been Around the World / The World Is Mine / Lullaby / Waiting for You Girl / Trials & Tribulations / Wild One / Hold of Myself / Gentleman’s Blues / I Want Out of the Circus / Wedding Day / Hallelujah

Gentleman's BluesSurfing around on the internet, I came across a cool piece of utterly superfluous trivia: Cracker are the one and only band that performed as support act with both The Grateful Dead and the Ramones. If that isn’t cool, neither is Miles Davis. While the combination of those two bands is awesome (imagine an unlikely merger resulting in 2-minute jams and spacey bubblegum folk), the band is probably more popular among an alternative-oriented crowd, because of Lowery’s past membership of 80’s prime geek outfit Camper Van Beethoven; the band’s underlying quirkiness; and vague connections to projects such as Mark Linkous’s Sparklehorse. On the other hand, the members of Cracker are known to be Grateful Dead-fans, and even recorded a first-rate cover of Garcia’s “Loser” on their second album. The music however, has always been a kind of rootsy rock ‘n’ roll that borrows heavily from laidback 70’s rock and often results in a more playful and hard-rocking version of, for instance, Tom Petty’s output.

It’s not surprising then, that Petty’s sidemen Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell (as well as ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson) also assist the band during the album’s opening track “The Good Life.” Drumming duties are this time taken up by Frank Funaro (formerly of the Del-Lords), while Kenny Margolis (formerly of Mink Deville) takes care of keyboards and accordian. Both men are still (early 2003) members of the band, by the way. Tracks like “The Good Life,” “Seven Days,” “Been Around the World” ooze that typical American atmosphere you also find on many of Petty’s albums or on the older stuff by Bob Seger or Bruce Springsteen. They’re firmly rooted in traditional song-writing, but somehow they also have that rocking drive, as they boast excellent musicianship and a killer chorus (the first two), or a laidback groove that’s infectious as hell and makes you want to hear extended versions of the songs. While those songs are in a way a continuation of the earlier albums, Gentleman’s Blues as a whole tends to go into a rootsier direction. This is probably due to the fact that guitar player Johnny Hickman, who is (co-)credited for most of the songs, became more involved in the song-writing. On the previous albums, he was also responsible for the most explicit country and folk elements (Cracker’s “Mr. Wrong,” Kerosene Hat’s “Lonesome Johnny Blues”), which are now even more stressed than before. “Trials & Tribulations” is an acoustic led, foot-stomping shuffle that is similar to what the Stones did with their countrified songs during their glory days. Hickman’s other two contributions, “Hold of Myself” and “Wedding Day” are two bluesy gems, both of which benefit from the accomplished playing and nice production (handled by Don Smith, who also did the first two albums), and almost sound like Exile-era Stones. Sometimes, the bluesier approach results in songs that are stretched out longer than necessary (Lowery’s “James River” and “Lullaby”), but, generally speaking, they pull it off with style and creativity. The beautiful, meandering title track, for instance, proves that Hickman is a highly underrated musician who has mastered several styles. It also makes clear that Lowery can still come up with touching tales of longing, which may not have the ridiculing essence of his earlier work, but, which are certainly as lasting.

Of course the band doesn’t get rid of its pop tendencies, as the album has several hard-rocking and melodic songs that are a great accompaniment to earlier highlights such as “Teen Angst,” “Nostalgia” and “Useless Stuff.” “The World Is Mine,” for instance, is the equal of Kerosene Hat’s “Let’s Go for a Ride” or the debut’s “Don’t Fuck Me Up,” rocking along with 100% energy and enthusiasm. “Waiting for You Girl,” an album highlight, shows that the band still has a knack for writing accessible rock songs that have a poppier, slightly melancholic chorus. “Wild One”, on the other hand, is a track that will satisfy any fan of a good old-fashioned street-smart rock tune. Because of the prominence of rootsier material, and the toning down of Lowery’s weird sense of humor, the album was almost uniformly bashed by trendy publications that can’t seem to deal with all things roots-oriented (unless it’s accompanied by atmospheric beats or other awkward elements that might turn it into a hip album to brag about), and prefer the earlier Cracker. It’s my opinion that they didn’t listen very well, though, because if they had, they would have heard that Cracker is still one of the best rock bands around, and has come up with a fourth good album, that really isn’t that far a cry from the three previous ones. As mentioned before, some of the songs should have been a bit shorter, or even deleted (the album is quite long: 72 minutes, empty track and bonus included), but overall it shows that Cracker doesn’t give a damn about expectations and continues at creating what they’re good at. Even more, the album shows more variation and consistently good song-writing than any post-Exile Stones album (with the possible exception of Some Girls). This may sound as a wilfully provocative statement by an ignorant music fan from Belgium, but before you start bashing me, at least make an effort to check out this album. It’s worth it.

Note: after the 16 ‘regular’ tracks, the album also includes 7 fragments that only have someone pushing phone numbers, and finally an amazing bonus track (“Cinderella”), that has an un-credited female singer giving Janis Joplin a run for her money, while the band turns in a muscular and soulful performance as well.

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Garage d'Or (2000)


7.5

 

Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now) / This Is Cracker Soul / I See the Light / Low / Get Off This / Sweet Potato / Euro-Thrash Girl / Shake Some Action / Sweet Thistle Pie / I’m a Little Rocket Ship / Big Dipper / Seven Days / Been Around the World / Be My Love / Heaven Knows I’m Lonely Now / Eyes of Mary

Garage d'OrAnd suddenly Virgin releases a compilation of Cracker stuff. It seems a bit early in their career, with just four albums behind them, but my bet is that they wanted to make up for the lesser success of The Golden Age and Gentleman’s Blues, that weren’t capable of sustaining the modest sellers the debut and Kerosene Hat were (and Cracker’s fifth album would be released by dino-label Cooking Vinyl). The compilation selects songs from each album, but it’s obvious which albums provided the most successful tracks. From the debut, “Teen Angst” and “This Is Cracker Soul” are chosen, both of which are highlights from that album. Also present is the relaxed “I See the Light” that betrays a Stonesy swagger that so many Cracker songs contain. Kerosene Hat, the band’s best and most popular album is of course represented by “Low,” the band’s signature song, which isn’t that representative of their sound, however, as it leans more towards alternative rock than to their true allegiances, a more roots-oriented rock.Other tracks are the swinging “Get Off This,” “Sweet Potato,” which sounds quite similar to “This Is Cracker Soul,” and, quite unexpectedly, the album’s lengthy bonus track, “Euro-Trash Girl.” The compilation then continues with a good cover version of The Flamin’ Groovies classic song “Shake Some Action,” which the band recorded for the Clueless-soundtrack.

The hard-rocking “Sweet Thistle Pie” is a fine indication of the heavier sound of The Golden Age, while the gentle “Big Dipper” from the same album shows Cracker’s ballad side. The first mediocre track is “I’m a Little Rocket Ship,” a track I never really liked for some reason. Gentleman’s Blues, the band’s least popular album is regretfully underrepresented by two of its finest tracks: “Seven Days” and “Been Around the World,” both of which have a great, unstoppable drive that turns the songs into infectious road classics. The compilation ends with a few new tracks: “Be My Love” could’ve been a track from The Golden Age, since it boasts a very elaborated sound and a less old-fashioned approach than most of their other stuff. “Heaven Knows I’m Lonely Now” (The Smiths?) is a decent, if somewhat unremarkable track, while the final song is produced and played with the assistance of Mark Linkous. And it shows, as it has a more experimental production with lots of sonic details not present on most Cracker albums. It’s a mediocre track, with an awkward processed drum sound.

Is Garage d’Or a good album? Yes, it is. It has a nice bunch of songs that show the band wasn’t just the next rootsy rock ‘n’ roll band, and was a force to be reckoned with in the 90’s (although nobody did). Is Garage d’Or a good compilation? Well, I don’t know. I’m not a hardcore Cracker fan (Camper Van Beethoven-fans would hunt and kill me), but I like the band and their albums, all of which I own and play a lot. Of course, it’s my opinion that they could’ve chosen better songs, especially from Kerosene Hat. That bonus track is a good one, but because of its length (8 minutes) two shorter ones would have been better. Their cover of Garcia’s “Loser” is better than their Groovies cover too, and I wouldn’t have used the new tracks and added a few from the last two albums instead. Talk is cheap, of course, so here it is: the alternative Cracker compilation – The Virgin Years:

1. Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)
2. This Is Cracker Soul
3. Satisfy You
4. Don’t Fuck Me Up (With Peace and Love)
5. Low
6. Nostalgia
7. Sick of Goodbyes
8. Loser
9. Big Dipper
10. 100 Flower Power Maximum
11. Sweet Thistle Pie
12. Useless Stuff
13. The Good Life
14. Been Around the World
15. Waiting for You Girl
16. Cinderella

So far this Public Service Announcement.

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Forever (2002)


7

 

Brides of Neptune / Shine / Don’t Bring Us Down / Guarded by Monkeys /Ain’t That Strange / Miss Santa Cruz County / Superfan / Sweet Magdalena of My Misfortune / Merry Christmas Emily / Forever / Shameless / One Fine Day / What You’re Missing

ForeverAfter a four year-hiatus, during which some of the members busied themselves with smaller projects (or so it seems, except for Lowery, who produced an album by The Counting Crows), Cracker returns with their fifth studio album in eleven years. I was curious about the direction they would choose now, since their previous album, the rootsy Gentleman’s Blues, had been their least popular album to date. Would they stubbornly continue that direction or return to the louder rock of The Golden Age? Well, as we could have suspected, the answer lies somewhere in the middle: it is definitely still rooted in country, folk, blues and even gospel (almost every song has female backing vocals), but Forever also displays a detailed production job, that stresses the band’s willingness to expand on their classic sound, as well as some hereto untouched surprises. Forever is a fresh album that proves Cracker is a band that likes playing music above all. No energy is wasted on grand statements, overblown experimentation or hollow posturing. Instead, we get a band that delivers the goods, and still does so with style.

“Brides of Neptune,” the opening track, is, like the track that closed the Garage d’Or compilation, co-produced by Mark Linkous who again leaves his mark on the sound. Whereas “Eyes of Mary” was unsubstantial though, “Brides” is this album’s highlight, and even among the best Cracker tracks ever. It’s a slowly meandering track that settles into a trancy groove, augmented by the eerie-sounding keyboards (that really lend it an underwater-effect), touches of violin, and the laconic vocals of Lowery. “Shine” is another laidback track, that features some cool nonsensical lyrics, and a loud chorus that has Lowery singing increasingly louder. It sounds a bit awkward, at first, but - maybe because of those seductive backing vocals there - it has become a favorite of mine. “Don’t Bring Us Down” is a bouncy track that has some more funny lyrics (“God gave you life, so get out of mine, and take your sorry ass, back to Florida”), but it goes on for too long, as the track becomes a bit of a drag to listen to after a while. That’s exactly the ‘problem’ with this record. It could have been a very good album, but somehow the length of the album (58 minutes) and the songs mar it a tad. Anyway, there’s still a lot of enjoyable stuff left: “Guarded by Monkeys” is their hardest and most vicious track since “I Hate My Generation,” while also the single “Merry Christmas” seems to revive the early 90’s Cracker with a jumpy and swinging track. “Forever” is one of those tracks that I immediately like without any reason: it’s quite an unremarkable track when it comes to flashiness and musicianship I guess, with a classic structure, but its steady rhythm, laidback quality and understated melody delivered it a spot on the Cracker car tape.

“One Fine Day” goes on for almost seven minutes, but it’s a grand track that even recalls the epic works of Neil Young, with the desert-atmosphere the song exudes, and the great guitar playing by Hickman. The introvert, more subdued side of the band is highlighted by “Sweet Magdalena” and the oddly funky “Shameless,” which reminded me of the earlier and more playful “Ain’t That Strange” that proves to be a great piece op gospel-tinged pop, with nice organ-accents and backing vocals. Oh yeah, did I mention that Brandy Wood replaced Bob Rupe on bass in the meantime? Well, she does a great job here, by providing supple, but muscular bass lines, and soulful vocals. Even Brandy Wood can’t prevent the fact that, like I said, some songs are stretched out too long, though. “Miss Santa Cruz County,” for instance, which repeats the same guitar line over and over again. Also, Hickman’s peculiar “Superfan,” that sounds like a combination of vintage psychedelica and …uh … pop, seems a bit lightweight, although I like the bridge-section. “What You’re Missing,” finally, is a track that worked well in a live context (hilariously funny, even), but you’re probably not going to listen to it all that much, as it’s a kind of monotonous hip-hop track that has all the members of the band rhyme some silly lines about their band. Conclusion: Cracker was, and still is one hell of a band. Forever shows a revitalized band, the return of Lowery’s lyrical quirkiness and some careful (and harmless) experimentation. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a shame (in my opinion) they still haven’t learned to trim down their material a bit, because that would make their albums work even better. Still, the album is a satisfying addition to any rock lover’s collection.

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Hello Cleveland! Live from the Metro (2002)


6.5

 

Seven Days / The Good Life / Lonesome Johnny Blues / Big Dipper / Around the World / Teen Angst / Cracker Soul / Sweet Thistle Pie / The World Is Mine / Low / Pictures of Matchstick Men

Hello ClevelandI saw Cracker play live in Brussels in the beginning of 2002. They played a lot of songs from Forever, which was released just a few weeks earlier (I had heard the album only a few times, so just enough to recognise the new songs), but also from the other four albums, and even one from Camper Van Beethoven: the unavoidable, but still hilarious “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” Although it wasn’t a mind-blowing set, it was definitely worth the money as they proved they were a unit predestined to be on stage. Lowery, sporting a cowboy hat and hillbilly moustache, gave 110%, Hickman seemed to enjoy every minute with that strap over his shoulder, and also the rhythm section (Brandy Woods, bass; Frank Funaro, drums; Kenny Margolis, keyboards and accordian) proved to be charming, lean, and effectively playing musicians. The band played loose and focused at the same time, without becoming sloppy. Allegedly, the band never uses a set list, but I can’t say I noticed it. Anyway, I had quite high hopes when I saw this live album (recorded in 1999) suddenly lying in the store, so I bought it immediately.

The set list excited me even more. Although it focused on the last album (four songs), also some of my favorite songs from the debut (“Teen Angst,” “Cracker Soul”), from Kerosene Hat (the hit “Low,” Hickman’s country rave-up “Lonesome Johnny Blues”), and from The Golden Age (the great ballad “The Big Dipper” and the tough hard-rocker “Sweet Thistle Pie”) were there. A surprising cover (but probably not to Cracker fans, who know they had been playing it for years) is Status Quo’s early psychedelic classic “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” This live album couldn’t go wrong…. And it is good, but somehow also a letdown. Whether it’s the production (the album sounds positively muffled) that hides many of the sonic details that made the originals that exceptional, or just the performance of the band, I don’t know, but it’s just that this album doesn’t live up to the Cracker that I saw, one that rocked in a more reckless and enthusiastic way. This is not to say that the album is lame or boring, because it isn’t, but it’s just not as exciting as it should have been. The mid-tempo rockers (“Seven Days,” “Around the World,” “Low”) definitely rock, the faster rave-ups (“Teen Angst,” “The World Is Mine”) rock too, and so do “Low” and “Pictures” and that’s exactly the problem. While the albums carefully balanced the rootsy rockers and the more introvert ballads and poppier tracks, all the songs sound just a bit too samey here (therefore, it’s also hard to point out real stand-out tracks). A possible exception is Hickman’s “Lonesome Johnny Blues,” which should be seen in another frame of reference anyway, but which also benefits from Margolis’ accordian parts. Apart from occasionally slightly false vocals (the intro of “Sweet Thistle Pie,” for instance), and average sound quality, Hello Cleveland! does show that Cracker rocks, and that the band seamlessly combines tough roots-rock with melodic alternative pop-rock. However, it could have been better. It should have been better. Maybe I’m a bit harsh on it, but if a band that has been around and touring for a dozen years finally releases a live album, I want it to be a confirmation of my expectations and experience, so that when someone visits me and asks if that Cracker band that’s coming to town is worth checking out, I can play that album and get that look in their eyes that says “Yeah, this is rock ‘n’ roll.”

Note: the CD has four additional bonus video tracks of “Guarded by Monkeys,” “Forever,” “Merry Christmas Emily,” and “Shine,” all of which are tracks from 2002’s Forever.
Also: there’s another website-only live album around (Apothecary Live – Flash Your Sirens) that is supposed to be better, but I never heard it.

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Countrysides (2003)


7


Truckload of Art
/ Duty Free / Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers / Sinaloa Cowboys / Family Tradition / The Bottle Let Me Down / Reason to Quit / Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room / Ain't Gonna Suck Itself

CountrysidesIt all began with bass player Brandy Wood's observation that mullets were popping up among the hipster crowds and Kenny Margolis' suggestion that Ironic Mullet would be an appropriate name for the hillbilly band that had been lurking inside of Cracker ever since their inception in the early '90's (and songs like "Mr. Wrong" and "Lonesome Johnny Blues" on their first two records proved that). So, they put their money where their mouths were and went on to the road, starting from the question what they'd sound like if they were a country band? Now, anyone who has been following the career of Lowery knows been a true eclectic who's been dabbling in all kinds of folk/roots music with both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, albeit in an absurd way with tongue firmly in cheek (although several people still don't seem to get it). This time around though, Lowery stressed it wasn't about being a smart-ass or trying to make fun of the genre, just picking a bunch of covers that would suit Cracker. Apart from Springsteen's "Sinaloa Cowboys" (from The Ghost of Tom Joad) and Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition," I wasn't familiar with the originals, but one listen already proves these songs indeed suit the band perfectly, not only stylistically, but also - some of them, at least - lyrically. The songs gathered on Countrysides aren't really emulations of the classic country sound, nor the slick cunt-ry pop that's been coming out of Nashville the past two decades or so. Instead, the band sounds like a seasoned bar band raised on classic Stones albums, Sun singles and a healthy dose of twang. "Truckload of Art" even comes off as a kind of waltzing Tex-Mex song, complete with the addition of accordion and with that ridiculous falsetto yodelling and lines such as "You're better off dead than haulin' a truckload full of hot avant-garde," it's bound to be an outlet for the band's goofy side. More healthy nonsense comes with the straightforward country-rock of "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" that could be used for some silly in line-dance, with all the participants singing along to "He's 34 and drinking in some honky tonk, just kicking hippies' asses and raising hell." Of course, Cracker wouldn't be Cracker if they didn't make any self-referential jokes or smart-ass comments, so the opening line to Hank Williams' outcast anthem "Family Tradition," "Country music singers have always been a real close family but lately some of my kin folks have disowned a few others and me" is changed into "Alternative country music singers…" Despite the fact that they satisfied their need for putting things into perspective by using songs that aren't very serious to begin with, the album also contains a few cuts that tread entirely different ground: "Duty Free" contains lines such as "Do you need anything from duty free, I gotta get out of the USA," lines that cause a bad taste in the aftermath of 9/11 and the insulting (lack of) intelligence of G.W. Bush, while Springsteen's "Sinaloa Cowboys" addresses immigration themes by offering a depressing "rags to riches"-story that somehow goes wrong halfway. There are only eight country covers, but as a bonus the band added the hilariously resentful Virgin (their label for 15 years) kiss-off "Ain't Gonna Suck Itself." Countrysides certainly isn't a key item in Cracker's catalogue, but it's a refreshing album and a reassuring indication that anno 2003, Lowery & Co. were still in fine form. Now, where's the new album, people?

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