Cracker – Kerosene Hat

4 out of 5

Produced by: Don Smith, Cracker

Label: Virgin

By dint of – if I had to guess – my being a purposefully obtuse ass, I don’t own a lot of music that makes people sing along with car windows down.  I’m not fun at karaoke because I legitimately don’t know all of those songs that you know.  That’s not true to exclusivity (excepting the karaoke part) – I love Sum 41; I love Bush.  But I guess those bands always represented a particular style, i.e. I never had any doubts that I was delving into top 20 stuff.

Cracker felt different.  I really wanted to own Kerosene Hat at the time for the same reasons we all did: Low; Get Off This.  But budget limitations made me miss the opportunity, and when the group faded from the Buzz Bin and into the used bins, my tastes moved on to other alternative stuff, and then soon enough, ska and punk and wherever that all led.  I don’t know if I would’ve been able to articulate it then, as to why Cracker ‘felt different,’ but lead David Lowery was clearly a bit older and that video had Sandra Bernhardt in it.  They didn’t seem to belong to the same cluster of groups that older kids talked about – Sonic Youth, Pixies – but neither did they exactly seem to belong to our lovable 90s grungers.  And maybe that’s why my dollars spent on Nirvana and flannel and not Cracker.

I was on to something, of course.  I was hearing / seeing the Camper Van Beethoven lineage; this Cali slacker-smarts group wed to roots rock for Crackerdom that really didn’t belong either to late 80s indie or to 90s rock, but were hoppity-hoppin’ between.  As I’m pretty sure I’ve blabbed in other Cracker / CVB reviews, I would get into CVB first, and then come back around to realizing – hey, it’s that guy that sang Low!

And that genre wish-wash is apparent on the album, as, frankly, it was for most of Cracker’s initial releases, whether unwilling to let go of the self-aware snark a la their debut or unable to settle on distortion or blues as their crutch, until getting out from under Virgin’s thumb and, perhaps, feeling more in control of their musical destiny…

While I return to Gentleman’s Blues more often than this disc for its emotional reach, there’s no doubt that Kerosene Hat is the best album from the early Cracker period, as it stumbled on to radio – right time, right place – as opposed to the group trying to scramble back to make that mark.  It’s a mixed bag of honesty and sarcasm, of rockin’ riffs and jangly jams and bluesy, folksy weepers, but every track arrives with an earnestness that makes it memorable as Hell, even if the tracklist on the whole feels a bit bi-polar.  The 99-track “hidden track” thing is also weird and disruptive; I’m never sure what the deal was with doing this at the time, but I suspect this was Lowery’s / Cracker’s snickering at the practice, and it added to the vibe of this being a group with serious potential… which gives up the spotlight at the last moment to smoke and go surfing.

Anyhow: this is the album that fits the “singalong with the windows down” bill.  You’ll look over and recognize the song, and I’m okay with it, and we’re both singing along sincerely.  I might even be inclined to go for a couple of verses of karaoke.