As the only band to open for both the Grateful Dead AND the Ramones (I hope this wasn't on the same show), Cracker holds a self-proclaimed unique position in rock and roll. They obviously appeal to a wide variety of folks, from the barefooted deadheads to the bare-headed Ramones ravers. On their fourth album, lead singer/songwriter/witty guy David Lowery further confuses the band's already eclectic direction by taking it into blues/rock territory.
Don't worry Cracker fans, Lowery's not gone all Chicago shuffles or Delta acoustic on us. But there's a bit of down to earth Stones-ish blues rocking incorporated into their pop/rock/country/punk/whatever approach which makes this album their best yet.
Lowery's cranky sense of humor is still intact as song titles like "My Life is Totally Boring Without You" and "I Want Out of the Circus" clearly indicate. But there's also a subtle confidence in his vulnerable, and sometimes humorous singing and songwriting, which signals a band that has truly found themselves, as they continue to push their own boundaries.
Cracker's been at this game since the break-up of Lowery's alterna-wonder kids Camper Van Beethoven in the early 90's, and even though all of their previous albums have had their moments of great pop/rocking songcraft, this is the first time the band's consistently got it right.
These songs boast extra textures like keyboards, and inventive, but not overly busy arrangements, which perfectly complement their low-key roots rocking. Never one to pass up a good thing, this disc features a perplexing musical follow-up to Cracker's biggest hit "Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)," now dubbed "The World Is Mine," which is such a ringer for the previous song that it's a wonder he even bothered to change the lyrics. But with Lowery's sardonic sense of humor, maybe that was the point. There's also a sure sense of a slow Beatle-ish melody and background vocals in Lowery's Lennon-ish piano lines to the mostly funny "Lullabye," a tune where we meet a gaggle of weirdo characters who "all fall in love all the time." Offbeat stuff, but always melodic and compelling.
The blues get injected into "Trials And Tribulations," a tune that's right outta the Stones' Beggars Banquet songbook. Country-blues guitar spars with a pounding bass drum and harmonica to drive this straight into a hard blues genre which was, until now, completely foreign to Cracker's already diverse musical world.
And it sounds great. The title cut is slow blues, with a slight pop edge, that's a perfect compliment to Lowery's slightly hoarse, generally forlorn vocals. But then it's back to more wacky Cracker-ness as we take a spin on a merry-go-round calliope for the appropriately titled waltz of "I Want Out of the Circus."
The album closes, as has been typical of previous Cracker releases, with an uncredited "extra" cut. This one's sung by an unidentified woman (at least on my advance copy) which sounds like Maria McKee wailing the blues. It's heartfelt and intense, and yet another twist for Cracker.
If you can hang on during the curves, Gentleman's Blues is Cracker's best, and most varied, album yet. Maybe they'll open for B.B. King next.....