The heart and soul of Cracker - David Lowery & Johnny Hickman - along with the core musicians from the 2001 Virgin release Forever, are back on a new record label with an unabashed country album. The concept for the new album seems to have grown from the band’s desire to stretch beyond their alt-country roots and create a straight-out country record. Although anyone who is familiar with David Lowery from his days with Camper Van Beethoven (as well as the previous six Cracker releases) knows that nothing is going to be as straightforward as it seems, and the songs are sure to be dripping with irony and sardonic humor.
Countrysides begins with “Truckload of Art,” an openly twangy affront about a country bumpkin watching a truck full of precious art burn by the side of the highway, making no attempt to save any of the pieces he cannot appreciate:
The truck driver went sailing high into the sky, and landed in the cold lap of the Lord, who smiled and then said: “Son, you’re better off dead, than hauling a truck full of hot avant-garde.”
| While Countrysides is not as accessible as Cracker’s previous work, hardcore fans will certainly find it a keeper.|
It sounds like typical Cracker so far. “Duty Free” is a standout track because it sounds more like a Pogues song than anything else on the record. It has accordions, irreverent lyrics, and stylistic singing that are reminiscent of the late/great group of Irish pub rockers. One can certainly imagine Shane MacGowan singing:
Do you need anything from Duty Free? I’ve got to get out of the wet UK.
The chorus and melody lines are some of the catchiest on the album. “Sinola Cowboys” is a wry Springsteen cover about a doomed pair of Mexican brothers, who flee their native land and end up as meth lab workers in California. After a mishap, his brother Miguel lays Louis Menzales to rest. The song is more folk ballad than country standard, and is a highlight because of the varied style. Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition” is about coming to terms with his famous father’s legacy, and seems to sum up the lives of the audience Cracker is shooting for.
When I get stoned and play all night long, I’m just carrying on a family tradition.
“The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Reasons to Quit” are Merle Haggard efforts. The former is openly sloppy, the latter is a quintessential country song full of ache and lament.
The record ends with the only original composition in the collection, and one of the best kiss-off songs ever penned. In “It Aint’ Gonna Suck Itself” Lowery openly attacks Virgin Records for dropping the band after sixteen years. The song title sums up the sentiment, and the track stands apart because it’s evocative of a Camper Van Beethoven-esque ska shuffle.
The present Cracker lineup grew from the assemblage of musicians Lowery and Hickman toured with under the name Ironic Mullet. The group played dirty little honky-tonk clubs and biker bars that would have made the Sex Pistols cringe from Alabama to Anchorage, and the resulting record is a homage to the shit-kicking white trash of the dive bar scene. While Countrysides is not as accessible as Cracker’s previous work, hardcore fans will certainly find it a keeper. Those less familiar with the band and its roots will probably pass this release off as a failed experiment.
The CD also contains a twenty minute QuickTime movie, in which Lowery records himself talking to Virgin Records executives on the phone. As Lowery lays out the concept for the new record from his bunker in Virginia, you can just envision the dismayed look of the suits in their fancy offices. The film ends as Lowery confronts Virgin and vents his fury about being dropped from the label. Cracker may have made the record they wanted. But perhaps, just this once, the suits were right. Cracker is Dead! Long Live Cracker!