After Camper Van Beethoven broke up — the band’s members apparently divided over whether to focus on their experimental leanings or pure pop songcraft — singer/guitarist David Lowery formed Cracker with two high-school pals, guitarist Johnny Hickman and bassist Davey Faragher (the group has never had a permanent drummer), to do the latter. On Cracker, Lowery strips rock down to its muscular essence, avoiding any of the fancy flourishes Camper Van Beethoven used that might have hurt — or strengthened — this album of catchy, clever and disarmingly ironic songs. The most sarcastic tune, “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now),” became somewhat of a hit on the very alternative radio airwaves it seemed to mock, and “This Is Cracker Soul” has a funk-driven edginess that’s irresistible — even if the song lives up to its name a little too well.
The four songs, recorded live in the studio, that form Tucson were originally meant to be the core of Cracker’s second album. From the punchy pop of “I Ride My Bike” to the sing-song cynicism of “Bad Vibes Everybody,” there’s little on this EP that the band hadn’t done already, but it’s good, solid, between-album fun.
Cracker broadens its horizons slightly on Kerosene Hat by incorporating more of a country-fried feel. This approach works some of the time — a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Loser” is surprisingly convincing, even if the lyrics to “Sweet Potato” are a bit much. Luckily, Lowery takes his irony with him, and affectionately parodies teen angst and pop conventions on pleasantly punchy songs like “Sick of Goodbyes” and “Let’s Go for a Ride.” The ballads (“Take Me Down to the Infirmary,” the title track) come off a bit flat, but it’s hard to deny their good-natured appeal.
Low contains the first album’s “I See the Light,” the second’s “Low” and two outtakes from it, plus “Steve’s Hornpipe,” which predates both.
Cracker added former Silo Bob Rupe on bass before cutting its third album (Faragher had left after the second), which offers an all too familiar — if somewhat more polished — mix of appealing up-tempo rockers and less effective ballads. Such songs as “I Hate My Generation” are as catchy and cynically funny as earlier Lowery efforts, but the singer’s curmudgeon pose wears a bit thin, and The Golden Age suffers as a result. Far more appealing are the songs on which Cracker stretches out musically, including the surprisingly spacey “I Can’t Forget You.”