Album Review: Cracker - Berkeley To Bakersfield

Empty Lighthouse is a reader-supported site. This article may contain affiliate links to Amazon and other sites. We earn a commission on purchases made through these links.

Along with Beck's "Loser," Cracker's "Low" hit at the perfect time when it was vogue to be a self-loathing artist.

The band was pretty much the exact polar opposite of late 80's hair-metal where bands were full of ego maniacs and the term rock-god was often bandied about.

However, Cracker weren't grunge also-rans, it turns out that their loud, melodic blend of Americana and garage rock just happened to fit in nicely with the MTV-promoted grunge era.

When "Low" finally took Cracker into the upper stratosphere of success, it had actually been a decade-plus story of hardship and heartbreak. Singer-songwriter David Lowery started Camper Van Beethoven in 1983 as an eclectic collective of musical misfits. Their sound simply couldn't be described.

They took elements of folk, garage rock, ska, world music and soul and put it in a Cuisinart and the result was delicious. They couldn't have been more removed from what was being played on MTV, but once the alternative rock movement gained momentum, they were signed to Virgin and even had a moderate hit with their cover of "Pictures Of Matchstick Men" in 1989.

CVB promptly split up after that first taste of success, certainly at the behest of anyone at the record label.

However, Lowery had another trick up his sleeve. He started writing music with a childhood friend, Johnny Hickman, streamlined that eclectic sound to better fit the 90's, and released the self-titled Cracker album in 1992.

The first track was titled "Teen Angst" and perfectly captured the alt-rock, generation X zeitgeist. One year later and Cracker was a household name.

As the years went by Lowery decided to embrace the sounds of both Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker releasing new music from both bands at a regular pace.

He also made his name as a tireless touring musician often utilizing both bands for tours.

Once the music business hit the crapper, Lowery found himself in DIY mode and often lecturing about the importance of musician's rights, a theme that runs through Cracker's latest double-album "Berkeley To Bakersfield."

Album opener "Torches and Pitchforks" sets the scene like a tougher version of Simon & Garfunkel. The lyrics "We will fight you from the mountains" and "You cannot take what isn't yours," could be Lowery describing the plight of Native Americans or perhaps the plight of a rock band in 2015 where even music fans are trying to take what isn't theirs in the form of downloading pirated music.

This has been a major issue in Lowery's life for a long time, as he stands against file-sharing companies and even streaming sites like Spotify and Rdio.

There is a palpable bitterness in Lowery's lyrics about "giving up your rights" and "your most private thoughts" on the following track "March Of The Billionaires." "Life's good for the billionaires" he belts as the band bashes out a loud ska beat.

This "Us vs Them" approach is actually the definition of punk rock. Where many people could argue that a musician should want as many people as possible to hear their work, the reality is that they provide a service, and a service should be reimbursed.

This isn't Lars Ulrich fighting against Napster, this is a working-class band that puts a lot of their own time and money into a final product that has value.

Lowery is not fighting for the fat cats in arena rock bands, he is fighting for the struggling younger bands that now can't make a cent through their recordings.

The process of recording music still costs money, so why shouldn't the final product cost money?

Cracker has always been a band with vivid concepts and ideas. The album is split into a "Berkeley" album where the guys bang out nine tracks of loud, catchy alt rock that is reminiscent of their 1993 high water mark Kerosene Hat and a "Bakersfield" album where the guys lay down a dark country set .

"El Cerrito" portrays with the class struggles of southern California with dark humor. Layers of female background vocals lift Lowery's gruff tenor into an Exile On Main Street vibe and the rhythm section brings the funk.

The other side of this coin is "Bakersfield." Often a touchstone of California country music for decades, the Bakersfield album is decidedly darker and more roots-y than the "Berkeley" set. "Almond Grove" is a beautiful rumination of going back home and seeing your family. Poignant details like describing a brother who "went to Kandahar and never came back" are a snapshot of why David Lowery is a genius wordsmith. Making you laugh one verse, making you tear up the next.

"Yeah play it weird man, this ain't Nashville" Lowery mutters during a guitar solo which is an example of the kind of country music these guys play. It's not anything like Nashville pop-country.

Its more in the vein of other country rock like The Band, The Grateful Dead or The Flying Burrito Brothers.

It's rare that a double-album doesn't outstay it's welcome and Berkeley To Bakersfield is an exception to the rule. The lyrics constantly engage, and the music takes risks. I give Berkeley To Bakersfield by Cracker 4 Empty Lighthouses out of 5.

 photo EmptyLighthouseStar_zps40939qdv.jpg photo EmptyLighthouseStar_zps40939qdv.jpg photo EmptyLighthouseStar_zps40939qdv.jpg photo EmptyLighthouseStar_zps40939qdv.jpg photo EmptyLighthouseNoStar_zpsm6wdp65t.jpg

For more on Cracker:

Photo credit: Jason Thrasher