Sixteen years past its moment in the sun and in the face of critical indifference, Cracker builds sardonic wit and musical in-jokes into what is possibly the best album of its career.
Ask your average music listener about Cracker and you're not likely to unearth many memories dating later than 1993. For a band that was nearly inescapable during the heyday of "alternative rock" radio, David Lowery, Johnny Hickman, and company have continued to float at an unfortunate distance below the radar -- even though they've remained plenty active in the years that ensued. The albums that followed Kerosene Hat provided enough solid moments to maintain a loyal fan base, but not enough sparks to bring the band back into the level of limelight it enjoyed in the early and mid-1990s.
Cracker's latest release, Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, rekindles the band's glory days with a pointed collection of raw rock 'n roll that extends the spirit of its first two albums. Although the rhythm section has seen its share of personnel changes, the core partnership of Lowery and Hickman remains intact; over the years the pair has evolved into a sharp-witted extension of the Jagger/Richards paradigm. But the duo adopted a new methodology for Sunrise, inviting current drummer Frank Funaro and bassist Sal Maida to participate in a collaborative approach to songwriting that has clearly infused the band with renewed energy.
The times may have changed, but Lowery hasn't lost an ounce of his wry gift for observational details; songs like "I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right" and "Show Me How This Thing Works" brim with the smart-assed wit that has always been the connecting factor between Cracker and his musically disparate "other" project, Camper Van Beethoven. But there's something deeper at work on Sunrise that infuses the band with an unhinged punk rock vigor rarely glimpsed in its past discography. Perhaps it's Funaro's background as drummer for the Dictators coming to bear on the band's compositional style, perhaps not; whatever the cause, Cracker has rarely rocked harder and more succinctly than on "Time Machine" and "Hand Me My Inhaler".
There's also a guest appearance by John Doe on "We All Shine a Light" that elevates Cracker's newly focused punk credibility; his vocal harmonies enhance a melodic uptempo song that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an early X album. And on the subject of the album's guests, Cracker cashes in on producer David Barbe's Drive-By Truckers connection to enlist Patterson Hood as Lowery's duet partner on "Friends", a honky-tonk tale of a particularly dysfunctional bromance. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows also adds vocal harmonies to "Darling One", a stellar example of Cracker's gift for infusing mellower tracks with bluesy, Southern guitar work and an edge that keeps them far from sappy.
In an unusual yet masterful bit of sequencing, the band saves the title track for last. It ends the album on a powerfully wistful note, capturing the decline of American prosperity with a poetic relevance that could also be taken as a metaphor for the band's own perseverance -- "dying is easy / it's living that's hard" indeed. Here they are, 16 years past their moment in the sun and in the face of critical indifference, building sardonic wit and musical in-jokes into what is possibly the best album of their careers.