Cracker – Cracker

4 out of 5

Label: Virgin

Produced by: Don Smith

By the time of Key Lime Pie, Camper Van Beethoven had grown mostly beyond the weed-stoked antics of their more loose initial outings, resulting in a mature, rootsy release that still nabbed at those folk and ska influences, but had filtered them through years of practice and the then more matured observational eye of frontman Dave Lowery.  Cracker, in a way, was both a progression and regression.  It was a step forward in its focus, narrowing in on the Americana that had always existed in CVB and just feeling comfortable as a rock band, with guitarist Johnny Hickman slinging always smooth and polished solos or riffs.  But it also allowed Lowery to welcome back a bit more silliness, Cracker’s output (with the exception, perhaps, of ‘Gentleman’s Blues’) forever delivered with a beer-smacked smirk and wink.  While later Cracker discs have, of course, enhanced and evolved the group’s gist, as with Camper, their first recording – this one – remains one of the most accessible and ‘pure’ of their catalogue, even if its not necessarily their best.  Opener ‘Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)’ perfectly sets the tone for the disc: as Lowery jokes about how his group is already a moot point, Hickman lets loose with a toe-tapping jam and, under Don Smith’s meaty, clear production, builds to a snarlingly snarky climax.  Some of the humor feels a little too self-aware (as with CVB), as on the following two cuts – ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ and ‘This is Cracker Soul,’ but the songs are still catchy singalongs nonetheless.  The flipside of this are some amazingly balanced ballads – ‘St. Cajetan,’ for example – that show Lowery leveraging his California-esque talk-sing into an effectively yearning croon.  While we do get into some blander territory near the disc’s conclusion with ‘Satisfy You,’ and ‘Another Song About the Rain’ – effective songs, just not dosed with the Cracker vibe of humor or smarts – ‘Cracker’ closes out with the deliciously creaky and creepy ‘Dr. Bernice,’ which has Lowery as a lyricist in his best form, telling a strange tale that yields a memorable chorus and is lined with thoughts and meanings that can be ignored for the sake of chuckling at the narrative.

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