A version of my story originally appeared in the North County Times. Cracker appears with Camper Van Beethoven at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Tuesday. Photo courtesy www.crackersoul.com
The military helped fuel Cracker’s resurgence in popularity via YouTube. In the music video clip for “Yalla Yalla” (loosely translated as “let’s go” in Arabic), a rousing rave up that opens the band’s ninth studio album “Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey,” young American servicemen are seen rocking out while engaging in various duties on base.
According to guitarist/vocalist Johnny Hickman, it has been viewed “as much as some of our big radio songs.” The inspiration came after frontman David Lowery overheard some male soldiers chatting at an Atlanta airport, “rubbed shoulders with them and did a little research into their slang” about fighting in the Middle East.
Many people in uniform have voiced their approval online. “They identify with the humor,” explained Hickman, from his home in Ft. Collins, Colo. “It’s not necessarily a pro or anti-war song and doesn’t really take a stance. The [end] winds up with all this machismo…It’s very tongue and cheek and silly, but there’s also a darkness because these soldiers are in a place where their lives are in danger.”
Cracker recently gauged the troops’ reaction to the music (Hickman bowed out due to family obligations) during a concert tour of Iraq. “I totally support the soldiers and their efforts. It felt good knowing my music was being played over there.”
Unlike some acts who shun the old material, Hickman said Cracker has no qualms about performing such sarcastic ‘90s rock hits as “Happy Birthday to Me,” “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now),” “Low,” “Eurotrash Girl” and “Get Off This.”
“We feel it’s a bit self-indulgent [to omit them]. We’re fully aware that this might be some people’s first Cracker show and those might be the only songs they’re familiar with.”
Without a doubt, “Sunrise” is one the rootsy band’s strongest efforts since 1992’s self-titled debut and the gold-selling follow up, “Kerosene Hat.” The album has spawned Cracker’s best reviews, sales and radio airplay in several years (“Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out with Me” went top 20 at the AAA format). “When you’ve been doing this as long as we have…you never really know what’s going to happen in this business,” Hickman noted.
Produced by ex-Sugar bassist David Barbe (Drive-By Truckers, Son Volt) in Athens, Ga., “Sunrise” has a raucous rock vibe that brings to mind the late ‘70s/early ‘80s period when Lowery and Hickman met as teenagers in Redlands.
Recalling their fledgling bands in the IE and early influences like Elvis Costello, the Clash, Police, X and Fear, the guitarist said “we liked the ones that had a similar sense of irony and humor as us. That thread has always run through our music and songwriting. It’s not forced, it just comes naturally.”
After releasing the frequently ethereal and introspective “Greenland” three years ago, Cracker felt like “a coiled spring, ready to jump,” said Hickman. “It must have been time in our cycle for this type of music, which never really left, to come back to us…There’s always been a little punk rock and experimental edge to what Cracker’s done from the beginning.”
X’s John Doe does backing vocals on the ominous, surf guitar-driven “We All Shine a Light,” where more Middle Eastern references abound; Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz and David Immergluck guest on the poignant, romantic “Darling One,” co-written by The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs.
The full throttle “Time Machine” melds perfectly with its subject matter: a 1983 riot at a Dead Kennedys show in LA. One day Hickman reminisced about the event with former Black Flag member Bill Stevenson and wondered what it would be like if today’s punkers went back to the past and experienced all the ugliness.
“Tear gas started flying in through the windows, the cops came in swinging at anybody and I took a couple billy club hits,” he recalled. “It was really a changing point for me as far as my view of punk rock.” Rough experiences aside, “I’m really glad punk has stayed alive.”
Diehard Cracker enthusiasts that prefer the group’s twangier side, should enjoy the laid back “Friends,” a duet between Lowery and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers. Originally appearing on Hickman’s 2005 solo album “Palmhenge,” Lowery decided the tune deserved the full Cracker treatment. “It had a universal feel to me about a loving, but slightly dysfunctional friendship, like the time when you go bail your buddy out of jail.”
“We’d never call ourselves a country band by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s part of our bloodstream…It was such a joy and a feather in my cap to sit back and watch two icons of alt-rock/roots music singing a song I wrote.”