Cracker – Forever

4 out of 5

Label: Back Porch / Virgin

Produced by: David Lowery

Cracker – or front man David Lowery – was doing stupid smart as CVB when you were listening to Jock Jamz.  The stoner tone faded ‘neath folk and rock, and the stupid smart turned a little wry.  And a little wizened.  By the time we all jumped on board with Kerosene Hat, Lowery was past the Gen X age to whom he was snarking, and so there always seemed to be something a little off about the Cracker formula, even then.  Like the band didn’t quite belong.

And they didn’t.  Despite being pretty damn accessible the whole while, the radio friendly pop mixed with DIY sensibilities and a forever smirking front man created this singular tiny universe in which Cracker existed, separate from the limelight – maybe to the group’s chagrin – while knocking out album after album of excellent, slightly skewed folk and / or rock.

Even when you’ve been following the band for years (e.g. Me) that sense of separation remains, a been-there-done-that sigh that, at Lowery’s best, triggers funny observations or astute introspection.  At its worst, it’s responsible for in-joke songs, or tunes like ‘What You’re Missing’ – a sardonic, round-table pat-on-the-back track that details what was otherwise the band’s most consistent, best produced album up ’til that point.  Cracker would he guilty of making this error on a couple albums, almost purposefully shooting itself in the foot; can’t have a perfect album, y’all, so let’s get a little dumb at the end.  That it is, at least, at the end is a boon.   And it’s not that it’s an uncatchy track, just sorta pointless and takes you out of the mood well established beforehand.

Well, well established: Lowery’s odd fascination with monkeys in the lyrics notwithstanding (mentioned on Brides of Neptune and, obviously, Guarded by Monkeys), Forever – appearing post an interesting arc of albums the maybe tell the story of slacker maturity and aging – sounds like a band revitalized, and focused.  It is the first album of theirs that doesn’t sound like a response to the last one, or that lingers in the CvB shadow.  The songs still bounce around the edges of seriousness, with a particular backwater flair, but even the solo-penned Hickman track – generally a tonal sore thumb thanks to tendency toward less veiled lyrics and less layered riffing – is a solid addition to the lineup, fitting with the band’s modernized sound quite well.

Picking out standouts is a tough call, which is why I started by highlighting the one non-standout.  Some tracks fit what might be considered a standard Cracker template of a California twang verse and catchy chorus, a la Merry Christmas Emily, but the group’s expansion to a five piece enriches and weights even that template, the change also triggering more flourished production sensibilities from Lowery, the band’s sound both intimate and room-filling.  This song – and other ‘harmless’ Crackery jams like laidback singalong Shameless and head-bobber Ain’t That Strange – are also smartly scattered across the disc, separated by the likes of the wonderfully Lowery-downer Sweet Magdalena Of My Misfortune and the excellent title-track; the sequencing not only prevents any lulls, but allows one to fully appreciate the value of all the band’s different modes – silly, sad, rock, pop – with each track being distinctive from the next.

Shame about the last track.  But a fair price to pay for a then-decade old band to crank out something otherwise so polished and rewarding.