Reflections on the band’s breakthrough second album
In the early 90’s, David Lowery had the same problem as each of The Beatles two decades earlier–how to work out of the shadow of your former band.
Granted, Camper Van Beethoven was beloved on the indie circuit but never reached the commercial or critical heights as the Fabs but likewise, Lowery wanted to chase his muse in different directions on his own as well. In his case, it was ditching the hilarious fake ethnomusicology for more straight ahead rock fused with alt-country with his next band Cracker. Early on, he actually succeeded, getting more notice than his previous group. But he couldn’t shake his sense of humor, which evolved from surreal to wise-ass, thus keeping him and his new band from the stadium heights of country-rock stars like Garth Brooks and others who played it straight and more traditional. Still, by 1993 and their second album, Cracker not only broke through the indie haze, but they came up with a zeitgeist anthem and a great answer song to Camper nay-sayers, plus another would-be answer song to a great (or not so great) rock tradition and a comic would-be love song/anthem.
Cracker’s self-titled 1992 debut not only showed promise but immediately helped make a name for the band with singles (and videos for) “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Happy Birthday To Me,” both of which were clever, though not quite as much as Lowery might have thought. With help from classic rock studio men, songs like “Can I Take My Gun to Heaven?” and “Another Song About the Rain” showed that they weren’t your ordinary country/indie group and “Don’t Fuck Me Up (With Peace and Love)” carried on the Camper tradition of hippie satire.
By the time of the second Cracker album, 1993’s Kerosene Hat, Lowery managed to hit his stride, show off his versatility and told his naysayers where to shove it. Aside from some slow weepy ballads in the middle, it’s the most impressive post-Camper piece of music he’s put his name on.
VIDEO: Cracker “Low”
“Low” is Cracker’s best known song and rightfully sits at the front of the album. Remember that the early ‘90s was the era of Radiohead’s “Creep” and Beck’s “Loser,” so this angry, downcast power ballad is a great feel-bad song that fits right in with the other two tunes, though it’s directed at a shitty relationship rather than just an internal hatred. The great video where comedienne Sandra Bernhard beats the shit out of Lowery in the boxing ring helped as well, of course.
Tough act to follow but “Movie Star” does it well with its amped up story of a beautiful decapitated screen legend (Jayne Mansfield would be the obvious reference), showing off Lowery’s jaded take on the entertainment biz. The momentum manages to keep going with the funky “Get Off This” (one of the band’s best songs), which could be seen not only as a poke at hippies and idealists but also the ‘fans’ who are disappointed that Cracker ain’t Camper. The chorus brings home all the messages, all in one ball of wax: “If you wanna change the world/Shut your mouth and start to spin it” (later, it’s “start this minute”).
Putting aside that amazing 1-2-3 punch that starts the album, the most notable song here is actually the title track which follows. The song moves so quietly and hesitantly that it almost feels like it wants to hide or disappear at times. Lowery sounds not just mournful but also naked, sincere, like he never had before or since. For him, a self-hating confessional, even a surreal one, would ordinary be too corny but he manages to drop his comic veil for a few minutes and it’s stunning, with the reverent atmosphere only broken briefly by a Neil Young-like/Southern rock solo from guitarist Johnny Hickman, recalling Eddie Hazel’s brilliant grief-stricken vibe on Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.”
For much of the rest of the LP, Lowery obsessively grapples with nostalgia, to such an extent that it’s a song title here. “Nostalgia,” as a song and as a concept for him, is a complex thing indeed–here, it’s a power pop song, toasting a mannequin astronaut and dismembered Civil War general to show his skewed, skeptical version of wistfulness and you can even take the extended fade-out there as part of that cynicism. “Sick of Goodbyes” was penned with Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous and you can’t help but think that the great despondent, poetic imagery came from Linkous, especially lines like “The night comes crawling in on all fours/Soaking up my dreams through the floor.”
“I Want Everything” is a sad slow one, showing that yearning lovelorn tunes aren’t Lowery’s forte and it’s the rare loser here but the same can’t be said of “Loser” itself and it’s not the Beck song. After years of poking fun at hippies, this cover of Jerry Garcia’s 1972 tune seems like Lowery is making a strange peace with the tie-dye set. The hushed, deceptive song chronicles lyricist Robert Hunter’s scummy card-cheat narrator/anti-protagonist, showing his version of Americana hero as a low-down grubby achiever, something no doubt embraced by the Cracker frontman.
The pair of road songs here are also revealing and hilarious, with one standing as yet another great answer song. “Let’s Go For A Ride” embraces the loud/quiet/loud Pixies aesthetic, sounding like joy ride tune on the verses but by the chorus, Lowery sounds so unhinged that you’d believe that it’s a crime-spree or kidnapping and not just a typical escapist romp. “I Ride My Bike” (a ‘hidden’ track here) is another psycho travel song, and also a barbed one as he yells about wearing a dress and throws in images of a mohair sweater, lawn chairs, Mickey Mouse sunglasses and a satellite dish. A parody of car songs for sure and maybe even a knock at Springsteen, but either way, it’s poignant enough for Lowery to become a regular part of the band’s set list for years.
Also hidden at the end is another song that screams out as a would-be anthem and parody from the title itself. At first, “Euro Trash Girl” (another live favorite) isn’t so much about the idolized would-be lover as it is a nightmarish sleazy tour of the continent. There’s no romanticism of the great cities, which get name-dropped all over the place. Later, when it comes to the shout-along chorus, the imaginary title character becomes a would-be salvation and the source of desperate pleas, which is hilarious when you remember who and what she is.
As for the rest of the album, “Take Me Down to the Infirmary” sounds like an it’s just an extended take on the title song but the Muscle Shoals-ish “Sweet Potato” has nice run-on talky lyrics about road fatigue and fighting expectations (“Well, I been caught stealing/Someone else’s vibe/Everybody loves or hates us/But we’re still alive”) and “Lonesome Johnny Blues” is Hickman’s solo turn with a cool Byrds/Burritos vibe reflecting his love of the Bakersfield sound (i.e. Buck Owens), which makes sense since he’s from around there.
As it turns out, Lowery made his peace with the Campers, not only reuniting and recording with them but also having them tour with Cracker. As for Kerosene Hat, it had a special meaning for Cracker and not just ‘cause it’s their best selling record (though that helped). They’ve had an annual festival where the record was recorded (the Soundstage at Pioneertown, Coachella Valley) and even revisited the album by playing all of it there back in 2011. You’d do well to revisit the album too, not just to witness Lowery’s biting wit but also how he and Hickman put a new wrinkle on alt-country that hasn’t been taken up enough as it should.
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