"We've had different people in and out of the band, and we've played to their strengths and that sort of thing, but we've never had an identity crisis," says Johnny Hickman of Cracker. The guitarist, singer, and co-songwriter has been a core member of the band since forming it in 1992 with lead singer/guitarist David Lowery (formerly of Camper Van Beethoven).
Forever a local favorite, Cracker makes another return to the Charleston area for a show at the Windjammer this Friday behind a new studio collection titled Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey (429 Records).
"We've never gotten to the point where we felt we needed to reinvent ourselves," says Hickman. "We pay attention to what other bands are doing, but not to the point where we start to follow them. We've always had a pretty strong sense of who we are, in terms of being songwriters. Any changes that take place have to do with personnel changes or new ideas you might have."
Cracker's lineup consistently features Lowery and Hickman. This new album and tour includes drummer Frank Funaro (of The Del Lords, The Dictators, Johnny Ramone) on drums and bassist Sal "Black Sal" Maida (formerly of Roxy Music and Sparks). It's a solid lineup with endless cool-rock credibility. The musical chemistry works well, and the new songs reflect the foursome's aggressive style.
Cracker recently signed with 429 Records, a unit of the Savoy Label Group (SLG), which is the North American unit of Columbia Music Entertainment. The band recorded the collection in Athens, Ga., with veteran musician and studio producer David Barbe (The Drive-By Truckers, Bloodkin, Harvey Milk).
Sunrise kicks off with "Yalla Yalla (Let's Go)," a fist-pumping anthem with a touch of glam-rock bombast and 1979 art-punkiness. While the dual-guitar interplay, quirky chord progressions, and pounding 4/4 groove of "Show Me How This Thing Works" resembles the fastest and coolest stuff in the early Pixies catalog, the mid-tempo "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me" bounces with the slightly sarcastic romantic sensibility of their biggest '90s hits.
Other standouts include the anthemic titled track (which is the final song on the album); the dynamic punker "We All Shine a Light," featuring guest backing vocals from John Doe (of L.A. band X); the country ballad/duet "Friends," with Patterson Hood (of The Drive-By Truckers) adding some mighty-fine crooning.
"We're playing a good bit of this new record every night," Hickman says of the current lineup and tour. "Some songs have mutated or stretched out a little bit since we recorded them, but they're pretty true to the record versions. In the studio, we recorded everything almost live, set up in circle, face to face. We take the best track and work from there."
The raw and edgy production style of Sunrise resembles the band's typical live performances, where they easily switch from full-on power-chord rock to country to psychedelic folk weirdness.
"We pride ourselves on a being a band that can do that," says Hickman. "With David's distinctive voice and lyrical style, it's always going to end up sounding like Cracker, no matter which direction we take. And that's the way the live shows are; we never have a set list — we just go! When people come to see us a few nights in a row, they'll see pretty different shows."
Hickman admits that he and his bandmates try to include as many classic fan favorites as possible, too. Cracker enjoyed a string of major alternative radio hits in the mid '90s — including "Low," "Eurotrash Girl," and "Get Off This" (all from the 1993 album Kerosene Hat) — and cranked out more than a few strong tracks on recent albums that die-hard fans love to hear at gigs. "We're not one of those lame bands that thinks it's too cool to play their hits," he laughs.
If fans and newcomers dig into the 11 tracks on Sunrise, they might discover and embrace a handful of cool new faves — songs that sound fresh, yet pull from the same musical and emotional territory that spawned the early hits.
"It was really a conscious decision, and it was what we felt at the time," says Hickman of the assertively "rock" sound on Sunrise. "We go in waves of what feels right to us. David and I like to put it like, 'What musical vitamin is missing from our diet?' Also, this record sounds a lot like the records we were listening to when we first met in the early 1980s. That's always been a part of our musical make-up; it's what we cut our teeth on. It was just very natural to make a record like this. We definitely have the perfect rhythm section for it, with Frank and Sal. Maybe it all came to the forefront at this time."