BY KRISTA NORSTOG LEONARD
It’s a bold statement to release a double CD set in these digital days of one-shot downloads. It takes major cojones to make that two-disc offering a concept album. Cracker’s Berkeley To Bakersfield (released early last month via 429 Records) reflects upon the band’s 23-year career by celebrating its California roots in 18 fresh-sounding tracks.
The Berkeley disc reunites the original Cracker lineup from their self-titled debut and Kerosene Hat, comprising co-founders David Lowery (vocals, guitar) and Johnny Hickman (guitar, vocals), Davey Faragher (bass, vocals), and Michael Urbano (drums). Supposedly Cracker’s “Berkeley Sound” is punk based. The punk is in attitude and middle finger salutes to “the man” and the one percent – oddly enough the spirit of the so-called “Bakersfield Sound” as pioneered by Buck Owens, the theme of disc two. Berkeley’s range is broad, including folk, pop, rock, glam, R&B, and a dash of soul and gospel.
According to Faragher, the Berkeley tunes were written, arranged, and recorded in studio by the Cracker original four in, appropriately, four days — with limited revisiting except for “Waited My Whole Life.” Stated Faragher: “[It was] real collaboration, but I think the process generally started from David and Johnny . . . [they] had a few things that were sketches, tidbits, lyrical ideas, or a chord progression – then everyone started jamming it out and they all did what they do. [It was a] very organic process. It’s the most fun you can have, period. I enjoy it more than anything. Just like a party. Laughing, playing, silly ideas that turn into things. Effortless.”
The “effortless” endeavor produced a solid collection. The opener “Torches and Pitchforks” hints that Cracker reconsidered and decided that the world did, indeed, need a new folk singer. The anger and disdain expressed in “Torches and Pitchforks” is present in “March of The Billionaires,” with taunts in the chorus, and “Life In The Big City,” complete with its T-Rex groove and grandiose backing vocals. There is a heavy dose of piss off in these tracks, as well as in “El Cerrito” (“I don’t give a shit about your IPO I live in El Cerrito”) and “Reaction” (“Girl don’t you think it’s time for you to move along?”).
NORML has a new peaceful protest song in “El Commandante” (“It’s just a bag of weed”). The main hook in “You Got Yourself Into This” is gloriously similar to tracks by The Kinks and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in the ‘70s or The Stone Roses in the ‘90s. The Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl” is all grown up in “Beautiful,” now a mother to mohawk-sporting teens. “Waited My Whole Life” begins suspiciously close to a hit by The Wallflowers, but quickly progresses beyond and culminates in closing vocals a la The Staples Singers. A solid rhythm section, spot-on guitar riffs, and sparkling vocal arrangements make this group of tunes a never-ending earworm.
Lowery and Hickman shook up the band for the Bakersfield disc, employing a core group of musicians referred to as “The Georgia Crackers.” An homage to Bakersfield’s history, this disc is packed full of twang country with a shot of wry and water back (“Play it weird, this ain’t Nashville”). Lowery, well noted for his wit and acerbic lyrics, is cited as the sole songwriter for seven of nine tracks. Dialing it back a bit, Lowery opted for romantic narratives of farewells such as “Almond Grove,” “Tonight I Cross The Border,” “When You Come Down,” and “I’m Sorry Baby.” All of these songs invoke the country music staple of forlornness through an advanced level of poetic writing. “Almond Grove” and “Tonight I Cross The Border” are heart-wrenching stand-outs. Cracker gets the aforementioned Bakersfield Sound right: vocals are part of the instrumentation of the band, pedal steel is prominent, keys are in the honky-tonk vein, and guitar riffs and solos are clean and to the point.
There is some of the up-yours attitude from Berkeley on “Get on Down the Road,” the antithesis to “Hit The Road Jack.” The fondness for California is well apparent in “California Country Boy,” sung by Hickman, and “King of Bakersfield,” the country side to Berkeley’s “El Cerrito.” Bakersfield contains new takes on “The San Bernardino Boy” (from Hickman’s 2005 solo release Palmhenge) and “Where Have Those Days Gone” (from 2006’s Greenland). Both tunes benefit from the rework, particularly the latter that came off frenetic on Greenland.
Commenting on the two-disc collection, Hickman stated: “From the time we started writing and recording music together on our little 8-track cassette recorder in a broken down rented house in 1991, David and I have done exactly as we pleased. Although it’s made some record label people a little nervous over the years, we’ve never had a problem putting songs like ‘Don’t Fuck Me Up with Peace and Love’ and ‘Mr. Wrong’ on the same record. Anyone who’s followed our career closely knows this. We’ve always gone wide stylistically with our punk, country, heavy riff rock, ballads, basically whatever felt good to us that particular day. With Berkeley To Bakersfield we’ve taken it even wider by making two records, with two different bands and every track sounds very much like Cracker.”
Berkeley To Bakersfield is the perfect shotgun rider for any road trip. With the breadth of its variety no other music passengers need be invited along for the ride.
DOWNLOAD: “El Cerrito,” “Life In The Big City,” “Waited My Whole Life,” “Almond Grove,” “Tonight I Cross The Border,” “I’m Sorry Baby”