Cracker – Forever

Cracker
Forever

It’s hard to think of a band with less luck in the timing of their releases than Cracker. Their first two releases rode the crests of the dying swells of alternative rock before grunge blew it to the backwater of American pop music. Their third and fourth releases went practically unnoticed in the mid-90s that featured glammed up, rap-rock, and pop princesses. All the while, they’ve kept true to their cynical, crafty, and intelligent style of music. Cracker’s new release, Forever, has all the imprints of a characteristic Cracker album: it’s smart and cynical, and it prances up and down a thin line between peppy rock and old country blues. But once again, current events have outdone Cracker. Their music is just as good as it has ever been, but the events of 9/11 have made them sound just as out of place in our culture as they have sounded for the last decade.
Forever is Cracker’s most slickly produced album to date. Cracker’s dynamic duo of David Lowery and John Hickman (and other comers and goers of Cracker) have supplemented their sound with a varied cast of musicians, including cameos from Sparklehorse’s wunderkind, Mark Linkous, and a few members of Lowery’s old outfit, Camper Van Beethoven. To some degree, this many-cooks-in-the-kitchen approach propels the band to some of its finest work, yet it probably doesn’t help the record as it struggles for some unifying continuity throughout the album. “Brides of Neptune” opens the disc with solemn grandeur. In it, the slow electronic mists, solemn string arrangements, and Lowery’s subdued vocal performance recall the forlorn grace of Daniel Lanois productions. In their following tune, “Shine,” Cracker steps up the pace a bit but still maintains a bluesy dignity with pulsing organs and soulful background vocals. The third song of the disc, the anthemic, “Don’t Bring Us Down,” throws the rhythm of the album off a bit. Despite its catchy hooks, sing-a-long feel, and quotable lines such as the gem, “God gave you life, so get out of mine, and take your sorry ass back to Florida,” it just doesn’t sound right in the order they’ve selected.
And such is the general feeling of this album. Just when Cracker settles into a groove, they throw a wrench in the mix and then have to work back to where they began. The laid back fun of “Ain’t That Strange” jarringly follows the paranoid “Guarded By Monkeys,” a song that recalls a little of the manic “Movie Star” from Kerosene Hat. The tongue and cheek “Superfan,” replete with Beatle-esque sitars, butts heads with its successor, the Rolling Stones blues of “Sweet Magdalena of My Misfortune.” And just when the last bars of the scorching, tortured blues of “One Fine Day” die down, Cracker kills the mood and settles for low-brow gags and chuckles on their country-rap “What Your Missing” as their last song.
Yet this is Cracker, take it or leave it: a band very nearly too good for their own good. Taken as singles, there are several songs that are good enough to fight for airplay on commercial radio. But their ambition that keeps them teetering between rock and country, peppiness and bitterness, no doubt confounds their followers and may keep the new converts at arm’s length. Forever attempts to wear too many guises. Are Lowery and Hickman fronting a party band or a gracefully aging rock band? Are they clown princes of the all-but-forgotten alternative scene, or are they a serious blues band? In Forever, they’re all of the above, and that versatility should be a good thing. But somehow it’s not. Not now, at least. And with Americans looking for more than just intellectual amusement for their musical choices, Forever will probably keep the band on the fringes of our musical conscience. Their song writing, which would be considered precociously witty under ordinary circumstances, now feels casually indifferent. With any luck, they’ll keep putting out records for some time to come, and one day, their music will strike resonance with the general public. This record deserves another release date down the road.