Review Summary: And the reasons to quit, don't outnumber all the reasons why.
The notion that Cracker would create an album of old time country covers is not that preposterous of one. Among those of the “alternative” mold in the 90’s, Cracker stood out as a band that had a deep country flavor mixed in with their punk and 70’s rock influences. They had the dual vocal, songwriting, and guitar playing talents of David Lowery and Johnny Hickman, both of whom displayed a knack for concise songwriting, emotive vocal stylings, and inspired blues based guitar interplay. It is a musical territory that sounds completely natural for the band, an influence that was never overt but still detectable in their previous work.
The result of this foray into the lost classics of a fringe genre is Countrysides. It is one of those joyful lost albums that otherwise would never be remembered, unless you happened to pick it up in a Bargain Bin at some backwater record store. If you’re lucky enough to be among that small demographic, you’ll find a sardonic, sorrowful, but ultimately introspective take on a varied collection of country tunes that range from very well known to completely forgotten.
“Truckload of Art” kicks off the album, its earnest acoustic leads contrasted by its polka like shuffle, crooning vocal melodies, and bizarre lyrics. Penned by Allen Terry, it is the perfect introduction to the tone of the album, Cracker setting the stage perfectly with their obvious enthusiasm. They play loosely but with focus, giving the album an immediate sense of context.
The raucous “Duty Free” is next, the drive of it being every bit as ironic as its quasi political lyrics. Keys, pedal steel, and accordion make a big time appearance here, really adding depth to Cracker’s previously established sonic delivery. Tonally, the song is extremely warm and inviting, Cracker never letting up on the impulse to immerse themselves in this stylistic territory.
Ray Wylie Hubbard’s classic “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers” is next, its roadhouse rhythms and sing a long chorus being executed to sloppy perfection. Bruce Springsteen’s “Sinaloa Cowboys” adds the first shade of blindside lamentation to the album, a heavy contrast to the beer chugging, piano solo in a saloon type feel of the previous track. Cracker is all over the place and it’s awesome.
Cracker takes on Hank Williams Jr’s “Family Tradition” and equals the impact of the Hubbard cover. They update it for a modern audience without sacrificing any of the unique virtues that make it an instantly recognizable song. The guitars crackle like they should for a dive bar song, the team vocals are boisterous but not precise, and the bounce of the song is right in step for a late night foray into a lost bar in the New Mexico desert.
Cracker next pays worthy tribute next to Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Reasons to Quit.” The former equals the sentiment of previous tracks, but “Reasons to Quit” is the real stunner with its tale of succumbing to addiction sounding like a true plea from the dark. Truly in the spirit of the Haggard and Willie Nelson tradition, Lowery and Hickman exchange vocal duties with earnest and create a desolate atmosphere for the track. It is the revival of these classic outlaw country themes that make Countrysides such a great listen, Cracker communicating them in a universal way for a generation that likely didn’t grow up on this music. I love it when a band rediscovers the ways of the ancients and adds new shades of color and texture to time honored musical and lyrical themes.
“Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room” takes on one of Dwight Yoakam’s best songs, and the band continues its streak of well-meaning interpretations. The song’s deep cutting meaning is contrasted greatly by the finale, a Cracker penned tune, “Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself.” The song is basically a final “to hell with you” to Virgin Records, the label that dumped the band after being completely unconvinced of the artistic and/or commercial potential of Countysides. The song is quite in the vein of material leading up, the influence of these sessions showing up all over the place in the song’s blunt chorus and bluesy leads.
Countrysides is a refreshing listen not only for Cracker fans, but for any of those willing to discover (or rediscover) the key themes in the country music tradition. There’s always a time and place for this music, its context being universal enough to relate to almost anyone. Communicating tales of the tolls of hard drinking, lost loves, and a litany of wasted opportunities require a resolute group to perform them, and Cracker succeeds in that task. There’s a sense of steadfastness to be found in these tracks, a quality that was always present in previous Cracker albums. Cracker easily tones down the electric guitar histrionics and focus on the drive and feel of the songs, virtually a requirement to be taken seriously in country. Just maybe, Cracker is more of a country band than ever thought before.
Ultimately, the reasons to not sift through this batch of country covers definitely don’t outnumber all the reasons why.