David Lowery's Aural History of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven

The always entertaining and criminally underrated Cracker performs this evening at the Alton Riverfront Amphitheater as part of the Alton River Festival. The band's most recent album is Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, a taut collection of straightforward rock songs that both mirror and mock the country's ornery mood. The protagonist of lead single "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me" captures the paradox and, crucially, the appeal of the Tea Party movement, aspiring to be Don't Tread on Me isolationists in hypermodern America:

I'm shopping in town for our homemade Agrarian fortress
You're texting: Corian, granite or tile kitchenette in the gun nest?
Well, we'll find a little meadow high up in the Cascades
Baby, we won't ever come down

The record is Cracker's most successful since its mid-'90s heyday, when "Low" and "Get Off This" were inescapable alternarock staples. (Though, of the band's post-2000 output, this obsessive fan suggests 2006's melancholic Greenland as a far superior effort.) It's also the capstone to a decade that has seen frontman David Lowery reunite and record new music with his previous band, the idiosyncratic and influential Camper Van Beethoven. Recently, Lowery began charting -- very discursively -- the history of both bands on a fantastic new blog, 300 Songs.

Did I mention that 300 Songs is discursive? Lowery is shuffling at random through all of the songs he has written, performed or even produced (hence the blog's title). Each song gets its own entry, sometimes with a explication of the song's lyrics or interesting production notes -- stuff for real die-hard Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fans, in other words. His "explanation" of the plot behind the Camper Van Beethoven's concept album New Roman Times is a prime example (and best understood after several hits from the bong).

Yet even casual fans, or those who simply enjoy reading behind-the-music stuff, will find entries of interest. Particularly fascinating (especially for end-of-the-major-label-era historians) are Lowery's posts on how Cracker benefited in the long run by how its label, Virgin, mistreated the band.
In 1995 at the height of our popularity virgin became concerned that we would challenge their contract under the california 7 year personal services statute. They re-upped our contract. They offered us a lot of money per album. Ever since then our records have been un-recouped.

Wow that's bad isn't it?

No that's good. Virgin records bet us we would sell a lot of records. We didn't and therefore we won the bet. We got paid more than we were worth.

In fact if you sell enough records that you are getting royalties you should fire your lawyer and manager. Because that means they "sold" your rights for too little.

Cause as an artist your royalties are a small percentage of gross. Between 12 and 25%. And you pay all the recording/video/tour support costs from this 12-25%. So if you eventually manage to pay all this back out of this sliver of gross. The record label has made a fortune on the other 75-88%.

In derivatives trading terms. In 1995, Johnny and I went Short Volatility on our career. We sold a Call to virgin record against our future sales. And we won on that trade.
This, it should be mentioned, is in a post for Cracker's epic kiss-off to Virgin, "It Ain't Gonna Suck Itself."

Hell, even new bands whose members have never heard of Cracker can learn something from Lowery's recent two-part history of all the cars, vans, buses and trucks in which his bands have toured. Buses are indulgent, vans uncomfortable. The band's current ride of choice? A 2006 Chevy Suburban:
We are now back to the most efficient and civilized way of touring. At least in my mind. I know sal doesn't always think so. he's 6'5". Quiet and smooth ride. You can ditch the trailer at the club or hotel and go off somewhere in the suburban. you can actually watch a movie and listen to music. And unlike the Sprinter the thing tows the trailer like the thing is empty. Love the suburban.
Cracker and its Suburban will be in Alton tonight with guests Descending New Angels and Devon Allman's Honeytribe. General admission tickets are $5. Gates open at 6 p.m., and the show starts at 7.