Led by David Lowery and Johnny Hickman, Cracker have always been something of a musically schizophrenic outfit, over the 23 years they’ve been going their albums have combined Bay Area rock with varying shades of grunge, punk and psychedelia together with the more straightforward country influences of names like Buck Owens. As their latest studio release, Berkeley to Bakersfield, suggests from the title, they have decided to separate things into two distinct camps, producing a double CD, each one representing the predominant music and politics of the California towns (garage rock/liberal and country/conservative, respectively) after which it’s named.
Berkeley find them with their rock heads on, and, as a treat for long time fans, even reconvenes the line up from its peak Kerosene Hat era with Davey Faragher on bass and Michael Urbano behind the kit. Deceptively, though, it opens with Torches and Pitchforks, an acoustic folk-protest number about the labour movement rising up against the robber barons, before launching upon its rock path with the swaggering, equally politically-charged March of the Billionaires, an attack on the tyranny of the rich (which actually does mention robber barons) which at times suggests Alice Cooper.
Interestingly, given their California roots, one of the more dominant influences here seems to be David Bowie, notably so on El Cerrito echoing the funky chops and ooh oohing soul back ups of Young Americans and Life In The Big City suggesting the urgent glammed rock of Suffragette City. On the other hand, Waited My Whole Life imagines The Cars with a soul makeover, and You Got Yourself Into This is muscular garage funk with a blistering mid-section heavy riffing guitar solo while the keyboards-pumping 60s beat flavoured Reaction, the punk pop Beautiful (a snapshot of the city’s alternative scene) and a tumbling soul-rock El Comandante (an amusingly pot-skewed variation on the disapproving dad) all underline the band’s effortless ability to craft irresistible melodies and hooks.
Travel down the road and you reach Bakersfield and the music shifts into the shit kicking Merle Haggard twang spectrum, the line-up now comprising Hickman, Lowery, Sal Maida and Bryan Howard (with Faragher on some backing vocals) joined by Matt Stoessel on lashing of keening pedal steel. Again the opening cut providing statement of intent, Hickman declaring himself a California Country Boy (to classic honky tonk format, saloon piano solo included) as he sings the praises of the part of the state (farmland and oil fields not movie stars and palm trees) he comes from.
Many of the other songs provide similar homestate snapshots, ranging from the simple pleasures (drinking beer, primarily) of King of Bakersfield and the stomping good time San Bernadino Boy to the downbeat Almond Grove which details a guy who’s heading home to the cotton fields having fallen on hard times, gotten into drugs and ending up sleeping in his dead brother’s car and the melancholic slow waltzing, brushed snare Tonight I Cross The Border.
Elsewhere troubled relationships inform the average country musician’s lot (“keep the house, keep the credit cards…. I’ll keep the truck, keep my guitars”) of the Stonesy barroom country Get On Down The Road, I’m Sorry Baby with its ‘we are estranged refrain’ and the six minute steel-weeping lonesome and leaving here When You Come Down (“I’m tired of living like we are strangers”) before the album closes on the rueful reflections of Where Have Those Days Gone, a less rocking Dylan, more wistful country restyling of the track off their 2006 Greenland album.
I have to admit, I lost track of them some years ago, but this has certainly reignited my interest. If you’re the same or if you’ve never encountered them before, seek this out. It could well make them two of your favourite bands.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released 26 Jan 2015 via Floating World
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