Album Review: Cracker’s David Lowery Releases First Solo Project, “Palace Guards”

Review by: Eric Paulsen

David Lowery’s first solo project, Palace Guards, finds the Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven frontman splitting the rock and roll atom in a grand experiment of ethos and pathos that explodes out of the speakers when struck with the first notes.

Lowery stands out as being the singer and primary songwriter for two significant bands. Camper Van Beethoven, a mid-80s group who walked the streets of Santa Cruz, California with punk attitude, ska swagger and indie-rock shoes was best-known for seeking the unknown, creating some of the most compelling and unexpected sounds of college radio while maintaining a sense of humor with such songs as “Take The Skinheads Bowling.” After Camper split, Lowery quickly formed Cracker with his good friend Johnny Hickman. If Camper was hailed for its invention, then Cracker would use that same inspiration to conquer new lands with lead guitars and witty vocal anthems that demanded to be heard, allowing Cracker to plant its flag firmly on the radio charts with songs like “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now),” “Low” and “Euro-Trash Girl” in the mid-90s.

Lowery has certainly been tossed about in the past several years as the music business has changed and his ability to earn money as an artist has been stretched. It is refreshing to see that he still has his wits about him, turning a clever phrase into a gripping story and a simple guitar lick into rock and roll gemstones. The songs on Palace Guards are at times moody and introspective and other times they are glorious and indignant. They are, perhaps, more personal accounts of those things that have been addressed thematically and musically with the same charisma and charm in both Camper and Cracker.

The first song on Palace Guards, “Raise ‘Em Up Honey,” could immediately make the listener think of “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” the opening track on the Billy Bragg and Wilco side-project, Mermaid Avenue. Surely, this is not intentional, but the Lowery track, like Wilco’s, has a certain irreverent playfulness that lets the listener know this is something different, not exactly what the fan would expect from the artist’s glossy catalog, but more like a rare collection of odd 45s found at a random garage sale off a high-desert dirt road. It is clear from those first notes that the listener is going to experience something that seems strangely familiar and completely new.

Lowery uses some of the same coloring that can be found in his bands’ art, but evokes a texture that is exclusively his own. Certain songs like “Marigold” might make the listener think of tracks like Camper’s “Sweethearts” with similar melodic paint splatters, and “Please Don’t Give It Away” could easily be the final track on Cracker’s Greenland with more of a blues rock signature and refrain. Lowery stays on the side roads for much of the album, steering away from some of the more daring and eclectic mixes of hue that made Camper Van Beethoven exciting, and though he is quite capable of playing the electric guitar with some of the same flare and grit of his Cracker bandmate Johnny Hickman, he uses other instruments and different melodic structures to frame the songs. So, there are fewer risks here, but many of the same brushstrokes that make Camper and Cracker so unique and compelling.

It is sometimes fun to learn the source of an artist’s inspiration, and David Lowery has devoted the website http://300songs.com/ to writing candidly about the songs he has written through the years. It is easy to spend more time than any self-respecting person should reading Lowery’s entries on the website as he is a very good storyteller and he writes like he is sitting there in the room, perhaps sipping a bit of Gentleman Jack as he talks. Lowery discusses the origins of several songs from Palace Guards in his blog including “I Sold The Arabs The Moon,” a song inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ book Autumn of the Patriarch, a story of a dictator who repeatedly sells out to various world powers, eventually even selling the sea. It seems to be a song of arrogance that has gone so far as to claim things that aren’t one’s own.

Camper has reformed in recent years and they and Cracker have toured together with Lowery resuming the role as bandleader. It is great to see both bands in one night and watch how Lowery can take on two personas while only changing the shirt he wears in between sets. Information about both bands can be found at http://www.crackersoul.com/.

David Lowery’s Palace Guards is that explosion of wit, heart and fuzz that you would expect of the frontman for Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. Any person who is familiar with the two bands will immediately feel the hook of Lowery’s rock sensibilities that have taken him to the top and kept him moving forward.

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