AOM Logo November 1998

Cracker: Gentleman's Blues

Virgin Records

Playing Time: 72:56

D. Malcolm Fairbrother

Cover Image

There once was a time when one could listen to a Camper Van Beethoven CD and marvel at the inventive lunacy of songs such as Take The Skin Heads Bowling, or muse about the manic Pictures Of Matchstick Men¹s mocking, yet self-serving homage to the original - and be secure in the knowledge that there were two or three worthy tracks scattered amongst the playful wreckage of tunes that fell short of their creators' lofty expectations. Those days are as long gone as CVB itself. Today, ex-Camper Dave Lowry is the song-writing front man of Cracker, a band that has steadily emerged from the shadows of the deadly moniker, "Novelty Band" and now balances effortlessly between the power-pop of Southern California and a fundamental understanding of the countrified rock and blues that presently arises from the South. Gentleman''s Blues is not so much a blues record, or a record for gentlemen as it is a compendium of all that is interesting in this deep-fried genre as presented by a group of gentlemen whose vision and style have benefited from a healthy dose of maturity.

Cracker consists of David Lowry on guitar and keyboards, Johnny Hickman, a superior guitarist, Bob Rupe on bass, Kenny Margolis on keyboards and with an occasional accordion foray into the mix, and Frank Funaro's impressive drumming which provides for his band a securely anchored foundation from which they frequently take flight. The somewhat puerile though nonetheless brilliant persona that serves as the narrator for earlier songs such as Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now) has been all but abandoned, a wiser, more perceptive voice accompanying a deeper, more intricately constructed set of songs. Yet the band never abandons its rough edges, as raspy vocals ride homespun harmonies, and chords seemingly struck from roughly hewn homemade instruments prompt the music through its several changes of pace.

Gentleman's Blues leaps from the speakers with The Good Life, a hook-laden moderate rocker that absorbs considerable flavour from two of Tom Petty¹s band mates, Mike Campbell on guitar and the steady Benmont Tench at the organ. As far as "road songs" go, this one has the required world-weariness, a touch of sarcasm, and a classical illusion or three tossed into the kitty for often does some one offer his lover a chance to be Persephone? The image hints at the shadows and light that await the listener throughout the remaining tracks, both musically and lyrically. The next two songs complete a triptych of road vignettes; Seven Days soon sheds its slitheringly sketchy introductory guitar-bass intro to become a full-blown country blues rocker that grinds relentlessly with intensity. Star balances confidently between urgency and sardonic commentary while voices and guitars whine, growl and slam through wry verses and layered choruses.

The tempo slows to a beautiful crawl on the bittersweet James River, as the band skillfully crafts a sound musical platform across which an imploring lyric stretches. Unwilling to sink the listener in a sea of moody gloom, Cracker repeats the same theme in a perversely simple song, uncomplicated chord structures and trite lyrics - and yet, My Life Is Totally Boring Without You remains a delightfully hummable number reminiscent of earlier compositions that fell just short of being too cute by half. Been Around The World walks, or rather lilts, along a path that lies somewhat between the styles and intensity levels of the two preceding numbers, and, although it is pleasant enough with an engaging interplay of electric piano sparring enthusiastically with an inventive guitar lead.

Gentleman''s Blues is replete with noteworthy tunes, seventeen in all including the hidden track that lurks at its conclusion. The World Is Mine hearkens back to the robust pace set by the opening number. Lullabye is anything but: rather, it is a schizophrenic jumble of dreamlike images mournfully adrift upon a dirge within which no amount of repetitions of the word "lullabye" can induce rest. Waiting For You Girl rocks it on out into power pop territory. Trials And Tribulations climbs Ozark Mountain Daredevil terrain, paying healthy respect to its country roots without sacrificing originality or acerbic insight: "It weren't no was a scorpion. Well, you¹re just another rabbit on the run" laments the scornfully bemused singer. Wild One thrusts forward on powerful guitar-bass-drum energy, a guitar break slashes into the mix at the chorus, then the piece collapses momentarily as if to recharge its batteries, and builds again. A sinister vocal edges the song into an Iggy Pop zone, but the song remains irrevocably a Crackerism. Hold Of Myself does not rise above what it strives to be, a simple country ballad, complete with dog and car, beautifully and simply presented.

The title song, Gentleman''s Blues, is a faithfully rendered blues number, no irony, no humour, just a sincerely delivered vocal and a melancholic flow of organ waves and evocative lead guitar. It is as if the band desires to show their talent with a minimum of artifice and a maximum of execution. This mood is quickly shattered by I Want Out Of The Circus. A calliope-swirling organ dances and leaps across the score as the singer drones like an unenthusiastic barker through a distancing megaphone. In Wedding Day, a scorned narrator opens with a curse as the new bride's wedding gift, while he watches from afar: "the devil will send demons to fly around your wedding day." The song is an effective companion piece to the aforementioned Lullabye, ironically toned, its understated anger nonetheless undiminished nor less heartfelt. The CD appears to end with the doleful Hallelujah , a hymn for those with nothing but life's painful ironies to give thanks for.

The observant audiophile will notice that, although only sixteen tracks are listed, your CD player lists twenty-four. Seven of the hidden tracks consist of brief silent interludes interspaced with touch-tone phone melodies. The connection is made on the twenty-fourth track, a hidden gem entitled My Cinderella, although no reference is made to the song or its cast of musicians in the sepia-stained liner notes. The bluesy vocals are a contrast to what has gone before, as they are delivered in startlingly gut-wrenching form by LP, the female lead singer of Lionfish, with Cracker more than capable of matching her frenzy stride for stride, lick for lick.

With Gentleman's Blues, Cracker has extended their own musical boundaries with seeming ease. By toning down their wild flights of lyrical fantasy without sacrificing one iota of their musical acumen or honesty, the band has produced a mature collection of diverse songs that should delight the most discerning listener for a long, long while.

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