- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey
429 Records

Slacker-era alternative rock band Cracker is back, if you’ll have them.

While the quartet headed by singer-songwriter David Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman never really went anywhere, they drifted out of popular consciousness after a brief dalliance with mainstream popularity. But for Cracker, there was no way back to the world of their origins, where bands built their audience through world-of-mouth, college radio play and mimeographed zines. Their lo-fi disdain for the wired world comes through in their unadorned, rootsy music and even in their MySpace URL (myspace.com/crackerhatesmyspace).

Another thing happened, though — the mainstreaming of cleverness. Mr. Lowery, first in his postpunk band Camper Van Beethoven and then in Cracker, was something of a pioneer in the field of writing sardonic, tongue-in-cheek take-downs of posers, hippies, Europeans, firearms enthusiasts and basically anyone entering his field of vision. The withering contempt for, say, “Euro-Trash Girl,” seemed meaningful and fresh back in 1994; now, not so much.

Cracker has responded to this changing world with a vintage Cracker album — characterized by alt-country hooks, power guitar chords and Mr. Lowery’s reedy yet forceful voice. In many ways, the sound is indistinguishable from the band’s earlier work, despite the addition of a new rhythm section: Frank Funaro on drums and Sal Maida on bass.

The single, “Turn On, Tune In Drop Out With Me” couldn’t be more timely. It’s a mocking dystopian anthem about bringing the tastes of urban bohemianism to a rural survivalist lifestyle — with a verse about the virtues of, “Shopping in town for our homemade agrarian fortress.” Cracker’s ode to technophobia, “Show Me How This Thing Works” comes off as a little fusty and out of touch. But it’s rescued by the interplay of Mr. Lowery’s steady rhythm guitar and Mr. Hickman’s lead parts, which vary from delicately filigreed fills to hard-driving solos.

Mr. Hickman shows off his country chops on “Friends,” which is in every way an update to “Mr. Wrong,” from Cracker’s 1992 debut LP. It features the same twangy, echoing Bakersfield guitar sound, an almost note-for-note identical introduction and the same hilarious roughneck narrator, unencumbered by self-consciousness. Even more tellingly, perhaps, is a track titled “Time Machine” — a postpunk barrage of guitar that fondly recalls the joys of 1983. The richest, most fully realized song on the album has its roots in the golden age of glam: “Hey Brett You Know What Time It Is” kicks off with a layered guitar and harmonica jam that’s straight out of “Some Girls”-era Rolling Stones and doesn’t let up.

“Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey” probably won’t generate a radio hit in the manner of “Low” or “Get Off This.” Yet, it will be a treat for music fans of a certain age, as a throwback to the days when fandom demanded a measure of effort, and good taste was something to be shared intimately — one mix-tape at a time, rather than spread indiscriminately like the flu.

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