BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
With the taut snarl of early singles including “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Low,” Cracker’s music is often labeled as alternative rock. However, frontmen David Lowery and Johnny Hickman share a love for classic country music that traces throughout their work. Had justice prevailed, songs like “Mr. Wrong” from the band’s 1992 debut and “Friends” from 2009’s “Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey” would be honky-tonk anthems alongside “Hello, Trouble” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
The new double album “Berkeley to Bakersfield” neatly divides Cracker’s split identity. The “Berkeley” set captures the punk attitude and politics drawn from musical ties to northern California’s Bay Area. Songs like “Torches and Pitchforks” and “Life in the Big City” portray class warfare and the perception that those at the top take from those with less.
“Aren’t we in one of those great industrial, societal transitions?,” asks Lowery. “You don’t have to look far to find those sentiments.”
Lowery’s writing naturally reflects his own views, but he’ll also let his characters speak. Sources can be fabricated or factual. “‘El Cerrito’ is literally the cab driver’s story,” he says. “I was in San Francisco with this driver who suddenly went off on Uber, and how workers are getting treated. He described growing up in the East Bay and how it used to be the working man’s paradise.”
The country set owes debts to key figures including Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. “King of Bakersfield” and “California Country Boy” praise the simpler life and salt-of-the-earth individuals found in California’s inland valleys. The forlorn “When You Come Down” paints the heartache caused by a hidden affair.
When writing the sentimental but tragic “Almond Groves,” Lowery was inspired by genre classics like “Green, Green Grass of Home.” The latter was a slice of country heartbreak for Porter Wagoner and a 1966 number one hit for Tom Jones. “I’ve always loved that song, and just how brutal it is,” says Lowery. “The guy’s dreaming about coming home on the train with the family there to greet him, but you find out he’s on death row. That’s the form I’m playing with on ‘Almond Groves.’”
“Waited My Whole Life” describes someone with the sense to recognize a good thing, while marking the album’s pivot point. “You start on one side with almost agit-punk-folk stuff, then that bends toward the country music,” says Lowery. “It’s just a love song.”
On the other hand, the wickedly funny “Get on Down the Road” witnesses the flaming wreckage of a ruined relationship. It’s the opposite of “Northern California Girls,” the welcoming single from 2013’s “La Costa Perdida” by Lowery’s other band Camper Van Beethoven. An embittered ex-lover sneers, “If you want a view of the Golden Gate, marry yourself a banker while you still look good.”
“My wife always points out that the rhyme should be ‘great,’ but I only say ‘good,’” says Lowery with a laugh. “It’s harsh.”
Cracker, 7 p.m. Dec. 5, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N Lincoln, (773) 728-6000. Tickets $30; oldtownschool.org. SPOTIFY playlist: http://tinyurl.com/CrackerSPOT
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer. Email: email@example.com