It’s not often that a band makes a case for its tried-and-true musical formula and breaks a bit of new ground all on the same album, but Cracker manages to pull off both on its ninth long-player, Berkeley to Bakersfield (429 Records).
After a five-year gap between albums, Cracker mainstays David Lowery and Johnny Hickman return with a trove of tunes full of the elements listeners have come to expect from them for the past two-plus decades: There are edgy, punkish numbers; melodic roots rockers featuring Hickman’s lyrical electric guitar; ragged Rolling Stones-style bar-room rockers; and country-flavored numbers that can be decidedly more sobering.
It’s just that for once, those twangy moments don’t feel like brief detours or indulgences; by devoting one half of the collection to this often underrepresented side of the band’s personality, Cracker makes it clearer than ever that while the band is best known for a handful of ’90s alt-rock radio standards, it is more than capable of being full-fledged honky-tonkers, too.
There are 18 tracks here split evenly between two discs, titled Berkeley and Bakersfield — nods to California punk and old-school country hotbeds, respectively, and mileposts of sorts for the opposite spectrums of the band’s approach. Whereas Berkeley is a higher-energy set that recalls the band’s earlier, best-known albums (and features two former members, bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Michael Urbano, appearing on their first Cracker album since 1993’s Kerosene Hat), Bakersfield represents the group finally bringing its considerable country-rock chops to the forefront. (Yes, Cracker did release a 2003 collection called Countrysides — around the time when the band had taken to performing at trucker bars under the name Ironic Mullet — but that was predominantly made up of cover songs and came off as more of a tongue-in-cheek experiment.)
Sly humor, idiosyncratic detail
This double disc is an expansive vehicle for Cracker to show off its range and Lowery’s persistent eye for idiosyncratic detail. In the span of three tracks on Berkeley alone, Cracker shifts from a spirited populist takedown of the One Percent crowd (“March of the Billionaires”) to a charged-up ode to a Mohawk-and-Doc-Martens-wearing punk gal-turned-barista (“Beautiful”) to a laid-back tale (“El Comandante”) of a fellow whose girlfriend’s father, who may or may not be a military man, catches them with pot. (“Told us it was herbal tea,” Lowery’s protagonist offers as a laughably unconvincing excuse.)
The humor is slyer, when detectable at all, on many of the Bakersfield tracks — that is, unless the listener finds somewhat stereotypical depictions of country living to be funny. The lifestyle is seemingly celebrated on both Hickman’s “California Country Boy,” a rollicking shuffle that kicks off Bakersfield, as well as “King of Bakersfield,” whose opening lyric — “I’ve got a doublewide and my own merlot vineyard” — is proudly delivered by Lowery. Not so flattering is “The San Bernadino Boy,” on which Hickman describes a less than savory character thusly: “In his rusty old Trans Am, a one-hitter in his hand/He’s cranking up that Back in Black.”
But Bakersfield isn’t just sketches of rural white folk hooting and hollering, set to music that would make Buck Owens proud. It also contains a pair of dark-hued tunes — “Almond Grove,” the tear-jerker tale of a junkie drifter meeting his end, and the breakup confessional “I’m Sorry Baby” — that help make Berkeley to Bakersfield essential listening in the Cracker catalog. No ironic mullets here: Whether anchored in punk or pedal steel, these recordings feel like a labor of love.
— By George Henn