It's always a tricky matter trying to distinguish between an album which showcases a cogent but diverse set of songs and an unholy mess. When does a new release demonstrate admirable musical variety andwhen does it do little more than present a crazy quiltwork of unrelated, mismatched pieces? Good enough questions to chew over with cocktails, but not the sort one probably wants to be asking after just purchasing a new CD. Which is why, in regards to Cracker's latest effort "The Golden Age", the discerning listener is well-advisd to either borrow a friend's copy, or else seek out a record store with a listening bar before committing hard-earned dollars.
Which is not to say that the album is a flop, mind you: only that it's not what you'd expect, particularly after hearing the first single "I Hate My Generation". That song, perhaps the best blend of punk nihilism and catchy hooks since Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", stands as the best of the album's driving rockers, others of which include the quirky "I'm a Little Rocket Ship", the annoying "100 Flower Power Maximum", a sizzler with Shannon Worrell called "Sweet Thistle Pie", and the short, endearingly simplistic "Useless Stuff".
The remainder of the album is given over to vaguely country-inspired pieces, which, depending on your taste, is either a fascinating change of pace or else a supreme let-down. For what it's worth, these country numbers could easily have been recorded by another bandthe only thing which connects them with the other material is the voice of singer/guitarist David Lowery. "Big Dipper" is a ponderous, subdued shuffler that is listed as lasting five minutes and forty seconds but which feels twice that long at least. "Dixie Babylon" is a pretty enough number, though its stultifyingly slow beat is, no doubt, best left for late-night, post-sobriety, post-party listening. "I Can't Forget You" is essentially just a showcase of Lowery and his guitar; its sole source of enjoyment is in trying to guess whether his voice will give out before he succumbs to a narcoleptic episode. Thankfully, the album's closer, "Bicycle Spaniard", acquits itself nicely. A slow track as well, it features some fine, wistfully melancholic guitarwork. Lowery's voice, which sounds thin and unequal to the task of delivering a tone of hopeless rapture in the tradition of a Johnny Cash, comes close to spoiling the song but never quite does itthanks, no doubt, to the fact that it doesn't have much time to do so. (The track is mostly an instrumental.)
All of which leaves a funny taste in the ears. The album's Jeckyll-and-Hyde mix of punkish blasts and quiet, Southwestern-flavored country pieces definitely takes some getting used toperhaps the alternating pattern of the songs from one style to another is Lowery and company's attempt to make these disparate approaches easier for the listener to assimilate. Whatever their method, though, the result is still schizophrenic, though pleasantly so. The numbers are, more often than not, good onesmixing engineer Andy Wallace invests them with the same sonic muscle that helped propel Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Slayer's "South of Heaven"it's just that they don't belong with one another. And so with "The Golden Age", Cracker has assembled, if not an album, then a commendably pretty collage.