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Published: 2003/05/28
by Brian Ferdman

O Cracker, Where Art Thou? – Cracker/Leftover Salmon

Pitch-A-Tent Records 18

I remember, back when I was in high school, turning on MTV and seeing some
natty looking guy singing.

_I don't know what the world may need, but a V-8 engine's a good start for

I think I'll drive and find a place to be surly.

I don't know what the world may want, but some words of wisdom could comfort

I think I'll leave that up to someone wiser.

Cause what the world needs now are some true words of wisdom like
"La, la, la, la, la, la, la la, la la."

Cause what the world needs now is another folk singer like I need a hole in
my head._

At last! Intelligent and sarcastic lyrics had made their way back onto MTV.
The song was Cracker's "Teen Angst," and as the early '90s witnessed the
domination of so-called modern rock, Cracker bumped its way onto my beloved
classic rock airwaves. I welcomed their sardonic wit alongside that of
Dylan, Hunter, and Lennon. However, in the years that followed, my musical
tastes changed, and Cracker became a forgotten memory of my youth.

Fast-forward to the present, and Cracker has suddenly inched itself into the
jamband scene, first through collaborations with moe. and now with Leftover
Salmon. It seems as though an impromptu jam session pairing of Cracker's
David Lowery and Johnny Hickman with Leftover Salmon proved to be so
exciting that the participants went into the studio to record an album of
re-worked Cracker songs. I frothed in anticipation of this studio
collaboration, and I can now tell you that the resulting album is even
greater than I had imagined. Each song crackles with newfound energy, and
Leftover Salmon provides an invigorating and unique spin on these
well-written songs.

Taking advantage of their vast repertoire of styles, Leftover Salmon hops,
skips, and jumps through multiple genres on their lushly concise
reinventions of Cracker tunes. "Get Off This" is transformed into a bubbly,
upbeat reggae number. Lowery's humorous blind-date horror tale of "Mr.
Wrong" finds itself recast as a lazy blues shuffle. Both the
self-deprecating wit of Hickman's "Lonesome Johnny Blues" and the
aforementioned sarcasm of "Teen Angst" are reshaped into speedy bluegrass
breakdowns. "Ms. Santa Cruz County" serves as the most enticing, hook-laden
track while leaping from rocksteady to alt-country to garage rock.
Surprisingly, Cracker's biggest hit, "Low," effectively retains most of its
original arrangement with the addition of a hypnotic banjo.

In the wake of founding member Mark Vann's passing, founding members Vince
Herman and Drew Emmitt have been the driving force behind Leftover Salmon.
That's why it's so surprising to see the newest members of the band make the
strongest contributions to this album. Banjoist Noam Pikelny uses his
unique bouncing style to skillfully slide between genres, adding tasteful
licks and fills in each song. Meanwhile, keyboardist Bill McKay employs a
driving barrelhouse piano technique on the more rootsy charts, mixing with a
mellowed organ on the reggae-influenced numbers. Finally, drummer Jose
Martinez ties it all together with an effective minimalist style that
lightly keeps the rhythm track percolating beneath the aural fireworks.

At times, O Cracker Where Art Thou? sounds like an ideal tribute
album. Great songs are reinvented in different styles, and the music takes
on a life of its own. This combination of excellent songwriting, virtuoso
musicianship, and ebullient energy plays out like a jamband's studio
fantasy, and Leftover Salmon and Cracker should be commended for producing
one of the best albums of the year.

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