Cracker front man David Lowery says that Cracker seeks to be egalitarian in their approach to creating fresh, independent rock music, and that approach extends to the band itself. The band is a flexible five-person unit, but generally brings in guest musicians for its recordings. In addition, the band’s members, both permanent and charter, have the freedom to work on numerous outside projects, as evidenced by the proliferation of URLs leading to individual members’ Web sites in the CD booklet.
For its fifth release, Lowery has rounded up his longtime collaborator Johnny Hickman as well as keyboard player Kenny Margolis, late of Mink Deville, drummer Frank Funaro, who previously played with the Del Lords, and new bassist Brandy Wood. Wood, a Virginian and longtime Cracker fan, joined the band shortly after the release of her own album Alone. The band sounds great and is the perfect vehicle for interpreting Lowery and Hickman’s memorable and barbed songs. Camper Van Beethoven’s Victor Krummenacher shows up as well. Overall, the album continues the denser studio sound the group debuted on The Golden Age while maintaining the garage band roots of early Cracker albums. The result is probably Cracker’s best album since 1993’s Kerosene Hat.
The disc opens with the strangely beautiful “Brides of Neptune”, which inhabits a space somewhere between Dylan and Counting Crows (who Lowery has co-produced), its electronic effects and string section contributing to the song’s underwater theme and languid feel. Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse contributes guitar and keyboards to the song and is responsible for much of its atmosphere. “Shine”, a slow minor-key rocker, has a tender message that is at odds with Lowery’s image as an acerbic, cynical songwriter. Cracker hasn’t lost its ability to rock out, though, as “Guarded By Monkeys” demonstrates. Hickman provides the right hardcore, alt-rock punchy guitar, reminiscent of Cracker’s hit “Low”, while Funaro lays into the drums like a wild-eyed maniac. The phrase “Guarded By Monkeys” shows up several times on the album, both in English and Spanish, one of those cryptic Lowery/Hickman lyrics that fits into the band’s personal mythology but remains murky to the average listener, who can probably supply his or her own meanings.
Lowery has made a point, since the Camper Van Beethoven days, of not getting locked into one narrow style. For example, after hitting it big with the single “Low” from their second album, Kerosene Hat, the band broke new territory and continued to operate in an independent matter rather than consolidating their chart success. The one thing that ties the band members, guests, and Lowery together is their love of American musical forms. You can hear it in the accordion work on “Miss Santa Cruz County” or the organ on “Ain’t That Strange”, both of which evoke groups like The Band and The Allman Brothers without slavishly imitating the sounds of such influential bands. It’s more the spirit and the goal that Cracker has absorbed from its influences. “We’re trying to make an intelligent kind of rock,” says Lowery. “. . . Fun has to be part of the equation. I’ve never really believed that you have to dumb it down in order to be popular.” There’s plenty of fun on Forever, not least of all the final track, “What You’re Missing” on which each member of the current lineup recites their own self-composed humorous verse.
Hickman comes to the fore on “Superfan”, a humorous but somewhat scary take on the stalker-fan phenomenon that uses a sitar-like drone and Middle Eastern melody and evokes both the Easternisms of George Harrison and the harmonies of the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer”. “Sweet Magdelena of My Misfortune” sounds a bit like The Wallflowers, but Cracker doesn’t stay in the same groove the way Dylan Jr. and Co. do-by the next track “Merry Christmas Emily”, the band is able to kick into a hearty country rock groove that at times recalls the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”. It’s hard to describe much of Cracker’s music without making these types of comparisons to other bands, even though they never really sound like they are purposely trying to sound like someone else. If you are familiar with Cracker’s previous work, this will not seem strange and you’ll be able to follow along quite easily. If you’re looking for a band that cranks out more of the same, you probably won’t find it easy to get a grip on Forever.