Johnny Hickman (left) and David Lowery (right) of Cracker, credit Bradford Jones

Your Permanent Record is a recurring column written by Brian Thomas covering the back catalog of bands that will be playing in the southwest Michigan area. Cracker plays The Acorn Theater in Three Oaks, Michigan Tuesday, July 9th. Read on for more details.

Do you remember the first time you “found” a band on your own? It wasn’t something your parents or your friends brought to you, this was something you encountered in the wild and it so thoroughly grabbed your attention that you had to find out what it was so you could listen to it again and again. Something that stood out, some chord progression or vocal harmony like nothing you’d ever heard before.

For me, that moment was in 1993. I was 13 years old, and my brother and I were playing the original DOOM on the family Packard Bell in the basement. We’d heard the game’s soundtrack a million times, so I told my brother to turn on the radio, which was tuned to the local rock station. A jangling, dissonant guitar leapt out of the speakers, along with a yelping, husky voice singing enigmatic lyrics about cosmonauts and a love that felt like being drugged. I was instantly hooked. I had to hear it four or five more times on the radio before I got lucky and the DJ identified the track as “Low” by the band Cracker. Four or five months later, a co-worker at my first real job at a summer camp signed me up for Columbia House’s CD club without telling me. Among the first five albums that I, an unsuspecting minor, got for the low, low, price of one cent? Cracker’s sophomore album Kerosene Hat.

Even all these years later, it’s pretty safe to say there aren’t many bands out there like Cracker. Their Wikipedia page lists no fewer than seven different genres for their music, from country to punk and everything in between, but what’s incredible about that variety is, across their entire catalog, the transition between these styles feels natural– obvious even. Cracker effortlessly blends these seemingly disparate styles in ways that never feel forced, instead hearkening back to bands like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin who drew from various genres for inspiration but always came out sounding like themselves.

Cracker, Credit Bradford Jones

Cracker, Credit Bradford Jones

On top of Cracker’s kaleidoscopic genre-mashing, you have the push and pull between David Lowery (vocals, guitar) and Johnny Hickman (lead guitar), Cracker’s two primary songwriters and founders of the band. David and Johnny have both recorded solo albums and the difference between their songwriting is stark. On their own, David emerges as the more abstract, more tongue-in-cheek of the pair, while Johnny’s songs are more direct and narrative-driven. They were influenced by the punk scene in southern California in the 1980’s, but also played and wrote music in a variety of different styles before coming together to form Cracker.

Their eponymous first album broke through on mainstream rock radio on the strength of the single “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” but when I spoke with Johnny about songs from Cracker’s deep catalog that stood out to him as personal favorites, the first track he mentioned by name was “St. Cajetan” (also from Cracker) and it’s easy to see why. “St. Cajetan” features many of the hallmarks that make for a classic Cracker track: sharp, rueful lyrics delivered in David’s trademark howl, and great big slabs of grade-A American rock guitar accented beautifully with gospel-style backing vocals and inventive soloing.

Cracker, Credit Bradford Jones

Cracker, Credit Bradford Jones

Kerosene Hat was the high point of the band’s commercial success, spawning the singles “Low”, “Get Off This,” and “Euro-Trash Girl,” but their follow up album The Golden Age contains a number of band-favorite tracks as well, such as “Big Dipper,” “Dixie Babylon,” and “How Can I Live Without You.”

“How Can I Live Without You” is another perfect example of Cracker’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek songwriting style with the fantastic chorus “how can I live without you/if it means I’ve gotta get a job?”

Cracker has continued to release new music over the years, touring almost non-stop. Their albums reliably contain the same handful of elements that make each release welcome; a creative and yet comfortable collision of genres, their biting, sardonic sense of humor, and heartfelt balladry. The music industry is a far different place today than it was at the peak of their fame, but the fracturing of the listening audience seems to have provided Cracker with exactly the kind of niche they need to continue to produce their own wry brand of Americana.

I’m incredibly glad they’re still out there, doing what they do. Cracker plays the Acorn Theater in Three Oaks, Michigan on Tuesday, July 9th. See you at the show.

Points of Entry:
Cracker – Kerosene Hat, 1993
Cracker – The Golden Age, 1996

Advanced Studies:
David Lowery – The Palace Guards, 2011
Johnny Hickman – Palmhenge, 2005

Hidden Gems:
Cracker & Leftover Salmon – O Cracker Where Art Thou?, 2004

Brian Thomas