Cracker – Berkeley to Bakersfield (ALBUM REVIEW)

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crackeralbumTwenty-odd years into their career, Cracker is still going at it, as they return this month with an ambitious look into the dualities of their home state of California. Appropriately titled, Berkeley to Bakersfield, it’s a double album that offers forth two entirely separate takes on the Golden State sound and allows for a showcasing of styles that have influenced and propelled the band along their path to now a now semi-revered status amongst their loyal 90’s-nostalgic fan base. While generally best known for a few mainstream rock radio singles that still sound great despite the passing of two decades (“Low”, “Euro-Trash Girl”), Cracker were always more than just grungy riffs and sing-along choruses. There has always been a bit of socially conscious snarling and scathing hand-wringing directed towards the powers-at-be in David Lowery’s songs. As you dig beneath the catchy choruses, he’s had much to say and has tended to spare few targets along the way.

Outside of fronting Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, Lowery is a bit of a Renaissance Man as these days he’s gained notoriety by teaching university courses, securing a PhD. and thoughtfully defending his fellow artists against the corporate and digital entities that are infringing on their rights to make fair living wages. And, the band, over the years, while generally leaning towards the leaner sensibilities of punk and garage-rock, has also embraced countrified sensibilities that had them, at times camping under the “alt-country” bridge with contemporaries like Son Volt, Chuck Prophet, and Alejandro Escovedo.

Those sides of Cracker are each given an entire disc to perform. On Berkeley  -recorded, interestingly, for the first time in 20 years with the original lineup of Lowery, guitarist Johnny Hickman, bassist Davey Faragher, and drummer Michael Urbano-the nine tracks mimic the famed East Bay/NorCal punk sounds. The songs are short and sweet and save for few exceptions (the leadoff track “Torches and Pitchforks” demands revolution, but does so with the whispered urgency of a coffeehouse confessor), blisters forth with guitar rock primacy and big, bouncy rhythms that hook attention and bring forth a sense of levity that keep the songs from delving too deep into misguided self-righteousness or fire-branding rants.

But that’s not say that Lowery’s songs are rants because they aren’t. They’re definitely filled with blustery fire, taking aim at the one percenters, bought-off politicians, and other assorted purveyors of corporate greed. However, it’s stuff said with his typical wry bent, where certain lines will make you smile a bit as you nod along in agreement, rather than angrily shake your fists at the sky.

The second disc, Bakersfield shares some of its’ companion’s lyrical focus but dials things back a bit to reflect the sounds of its’ namesake. In addition to being Buck Owens’ hometown and a friendly welcoming place to country legends like Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam, Bakersfield carries itself with a more traditional, “roll up your sleeves and get to work”, blue-collar mentality that’s far removed from both the tightly wound urgency of Berkeley and the stereotypical mellowed out vibe that emanates from the rest of Southern California. This mentality resonates immediately on the opening track, “California Country Boy”, which descriptively offers forth a bird’s eye view of typical life in the inland valley. It’s an account that demands a waltzy beat and begs for that traditional country instrumentation. Thus, Lowery and Hickman fill the nine tracks here with flourishes of fiddle and pedal steel and let the music wash through with a bit more space and time to develop. It’s a bit of a longer listen than the Berkeley side, and one that proves a bit more exciting over the course of repeated listens.

While non-Californians may find the repeated mentions of insider details and reference points a bit baffling or confounding at times, there’s no doubt that this double-disc effort is solid work. After twenty years apart, the original lineup on disc one falls expertly right back in place to bring a vintage Cracker sound to Lowery’s musings and meditations. Likewise on the second disc, Lowery and Hickman take great pains to create a country sound that the old warhorses populating Bakersfield’s drinking establishments would be proud to spin on the jukebox. Kudos to Cracker for not only soldiering on after twenty-plus years in the business, but for also exploring new concepts along the way.

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