Now here’s an idea fraught with peril. Take perpetual wise-asses Cracker (spawned from seminal wise-asses Camper Van Beethoven) and pair them with the grassroots, decidely jammy Leftover Salmon. David Lowery and company have always had a smirk to their music that always threatened to overpower their chops, but it’s safe to say that the Camper Van/Cracker collective is responsible for some genuine, lasting classics.
O Cracker takes some of those classics (at least from the Cracker side of the fence) and runs them up and down and through the hollers so they get a little bit of bluegrass in their blood. As usual, it’s hard to tell how seriously to take the record, but the band’s sense of fun is so apparent that the listener’s best choice is to probably just go along for the ride and not worry too much. And it’s a pretty fun ride, overall, even if Lowery’s put-on drawl distracts whenever it pops up (but then again, we Southerners could just be a touch too sensitive to bad Southern accents).
In some cases, the songs didn’t have that far to travel. “Lonesome Johnny Blues” had one foot in the country to begin with, so a little banjo and mandolin don’t stir things up that much. “Mr. Wrong” also possesses a natural backwoods lope, and all the banjo plucking in the world won’t suppress its gleeful, low-class heart. It’s surprising, though, how well a song like “Sweet Potato” fares without the heavy riffage; here, it leads in with a rolling banjo line and settles into a largely acoustic groove with time for a tasty instrumental breakdown. Likewise, “Low” shouldn’t work at all, but the group manages to make the intro banjo lick actually sound brooding, and from there it goes into a fairly conventional chorus and a pretty nice banjo/organ interlude. The real highlight, though, is “Waiting for You Girl”, which also sounds like the most fully fleshed out song. Like the other ordinarily electric Cracker songs, it finds a way to translate the opening guitar riff’s power. It also features one heck of a piano intro, before the whole thing gives in to piano, banjo, and slide guitar gods.
The whole thing does feel like a bit of a goof, despite the fact that much of it works. It’s not likely Cracker and Leftover Salmon are trying to stake their claim in the Americana/alt-country landscape (other than what Leftover Salmon already occupies), and it doesn’t feel like they’re laughing (too loud) at the whole post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? landscape (despite the fact you’ll never be able to get the title’s tongue out of its figurative cheek). It sounds like they’re just having some fun. No doubt, Lowery welcomed the chance to reinvent/twist a few of his band’s old chestnuts, and Leftover Salmon probably enjoyed giving “Eurotrash Girl” a little country twang. At any rate, it’s certainly in keeping with Cracker’s recent performances and upcoming album under the guise of Ironic Mullet, where outlaw country covers carry the day.
It’s certainly more satisfying than Camper Van Beethoven’s recent rescue of Tusk from the archives. While Tusk has its moments, it also tends to wander off into the cosmos with little sign of returning. O Cracker plays it much more straight, for all the newgrass trappings and instrumentation, and ends up being a fun diversion as a result. Heck, half the time you can hear the band jabbering instructions to each other behind the music. They obviously didn’t get bogged down in mapping out every nook and cranny of the songs; consequently, it feels way too anal-retentive to listen to the record with anything approaching critical precision. It feels better to just tap your foot and sing along.