My Favorite Cracker Album: Gentlemans Blues – by Krista Norstog Leonard
THE BITTERSWEET GENTLEMAN’S BLUES
Cracker: Gentleman’s Blues / August 1998 / 17 songs / 72 minutes / Virgin
Full disclosure: Gentleman’s Blues is my favorite Cracker album. I call it an “album” even though there was no LP vinyl produced by Cracker’s record label. It’s a picture book of sorts, a diary. How to construct a review or a commentary on the album after over sixteen years from its release brought to mind the 33 1/3 series of books published by Bloomsbury Academic. Each book is meticulously crafted in tribute to seminal albums such as The Band’s Music From Big Pink, The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, and The Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Does Cracker’s Gentleman’s Blues warrant such attention as the music revered in the 33 1/3 book series? Resoundingly, yes.
Perhaps it could be that Johnny Hickman (co-founder, songwriter, guitarist, vocalist) has been told by many Cracker fans that Gentleman’s Blues is Cracker’s Exile on Main Street. Hickman himself, as well as other music writers make that comparison. What’s so damn special about Exile? What’s so damn special about Gentleman’s Blues? The sound. The vibe. The band. The songs. Being a Stones fan makes it easy for me to compare the albums. Like Exile wouldn’t be the first album I’d suggest to someone to get the feel of The Rolling Stones (it would be Let It Bleed), Gentleman’s Blues wouldn’t be the first album I’d suggest to recruit a potential new Crumb (a self-proclaimed Cracker fan). Cracker’s self-titled first album from 1991, or the Cracker Brand album as some call it, and their album Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey from 2009 would be the gateway drug I’d employ. Gentleman’s Blues, like Exile, is much, much deeper and darker than other releases by these two bands. It takes repeated listening even though the first push of “play” will pull you in. Gentleman’s Blues is what hardcore Cracker listeners appreciate and adore about the band and their songs. It’s the album from which selections continue to appear in Cracker’s live shows in 2014 and the album that contains many fans’ favorite Cracker songs. It’s also a “very underrated record,” according to former Cracker member Kenny Margolis (keys, accordion). I agree.
Hickman, amidst preparing for the opening of the supporting tour for Cracker’s new double-length CD Berkeley To Bakersfield, offered several comments for this review. Hickman, always endearingly quotable, stated:
“Although Gentleman’s Blues did not produce a big single or anything, a lot of Crumbs [Cracker fans] have told me that it’s their favorite Cracker record. To my ears it’s our wildest in terms of both songs, overall production and length. I’ve heard it referred to more than once as our Exile on Main Street and can understand the comparisons from you Stones fans. A mid-period, rambling record with no big hit, yet still oozing with attitude and great songs. Yeah, I’m showing some hubris here, but I think it’s a damn cool album. In retrospect, I love the fact that as on Exile, some songs went down slowly, fully realized, worked out and really glorious while others were recorded very raw . . . one take guitar and keyboard solos, vocals . . . everything.”
I could write out a song-by-song comparison of this album to Exile on Main Street, I could go through the detailed comparisons I sketched out of Gentleman’s Blues being a concept album that wasn’t planned, a soundtrack to the life of a musician, an autobiography of David Lowery (co-founder, songwriter, vocalist, guitarist) and Hickman, a companion to completing the seven stages of grief, but that doesn’t cover it all. The seventy-two minute, 17-track album (excluding silent tracks and the hidden “Cinderella”) is a life journey – a journey that, according to Hickman, was nearly a double album. Sorting through the liner notes alone hits home the care and attention the band put into their journey. Recordings in three studios, a plethora of supporting musicians and vocalists, and as far as I can read from the credits mixed among the lyrics of “Gentleman’s Blues” in French, four different production teams.
Gentleman’s Blues was Cracker’s fourth full-length release for Virgin records. It followed The Golden Age, an album I adore that had wonderful videos for “I Hate My Generation” and “Nothing To Believe In.” After the rapid-selling Kerosene Hat (1993) and the not-so-rapid-selling The Golden Age (1996), Virgin must have been losing faith. There was no vinyl – but it was 1998 and the CD was the preferred mode. There were no videos. There was little record-label press push. There wasn’t even a single as Hickman pointed out. Gentleman’s Blues charted at only 182 on Billboard’s Top 200. But the true music aficionados were paying attention. Any album by Cracker was certain to contain surprises, something unique and different from the last fare. On Thanksgiving Eve, the ever-gracious Margolis spoke to me by telephone and summed up Cracker well:
“One of the things I’ve always liked about Cracker is they are never pigeon-holed. Take AC/DC – everything sounds like an AC/DC rocker. With Cracker there are a lot of different styles and things going on. It keeps things interesting. You don’t get bored – especially the live shows.”
I learned about the soon-to-be released Gentleman’s Blues via a brilliant review in the now defunct Musician, CMJ, or another of the guitar player magazines that stocked my mailbox. The album received the highest praise in stars, dots, or whatever was used. I went berserk to get the album that the reviewer proclaimed to be the best guitar-oriented album out there. Gentleman’s Blues brought together the core musicians – the Cracker band du jour – Lowery, Hickman, Bob Rupe (bass), Margolis, and newcomer Frank Funaro (drums). They were joined by thirteen supporting cast members including my favorite of The Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, as well as LP, Tommy Stinson (The Replacements, Bash & Pop, Guns N’ Roses), Steve Jordan (Keith Richards and The X-pensive Winos, Eric Clapton), Kristin Asbury (September ’67), and others. Former Cracker member Davey Faragher also returned to the roost to add bass and backing vocals on several tracks. It reunited Cracker with producer, engineer, and mix master Don Smith. The resulting snapshot of the reunion, the album, is impeccable. Wrote Hickman:
“There was also this big family hang out sort of thing going on with lots of friends playing or singing back-up vocals on tracks, etc. Some songs went on the record in versions closer to rough demos that shine with immediacy and vibe. Our late, great producer Don Smith truly understood the importance of taking a song in either direction.”
To truly enjoy and appreciate Gentleman’s Blues, you must listen to it through headphones. Smith’s mixing is fantastic – the panning, the alternate use of the left and right channels, his restraint – and blends lead guitar in your right ear, keys in your left ear, and vocals in the dead center of your forehead where your third eye resides. The instruments and vocals may swap the left and right channels on recordings, but the most important part of the song is right where it needs to be: swirling around your brain and spiraling down through your heart to your nether regions. It is rock and roll, after all, isn’t it?
Well, no, it’s not. It’s “gentleman’s blues,” a different sort of music. It’s the kind that Lowery and Hickman invented. Wrote Hickman:
“The title came when David sat down with an acoustic guitar and played me what became the title track. It was stunning. I told him ‘Man . . . this is like . . . like . . . some kind of beautiful gentleman’s blues.’ I became a little obsessed with playing some sad, eerie guitar that answered his heart-achingly beautiful lyrics. He really liked what I laid down, oddly enough on his long-lost green Ibanez Surfcaster guitar. [“Gentleman’s Blues”] is still one of my all-time favorite Cracker songs.”
Yes, Virginia, even rock stars get the blues – the gentleman’s blues. The kind that come from promises made and broken, hopes realized and dashed, loves found and lost. This is a point not lost on Hickman:
“It was winter, we were in Bearsville where some of the most amazing early Americana was laid down by folks like The Band and Dylan and many more. The ghosts got to us in a good way. A few of us had gone through a break up or two around then as well . . . always good for writing songs.”
To play and sing the gentleman’s blues, like the traditional blues of the Delta, you have to experience and live them. This is what breathes life into the album’s songs and make them deeply personal to the listener, who believes that the songs are autobiographical, believes the truth is being told, and believes that the human experience is unique and yet the same for all. What distinguishes the gentleman’s blues from the Delta blues is there is no obvious wailing or crying for the no-good gal that left town with your best friend. There is no straight-forward begging or pleading. Instead, the gentleman’s blues, while admitting the loss, is the telling of the story with quiet resignation of the end.
Lowery doesn’t admit his lyrics are autobiographical. In a February 1999 interview with NYROCK, he stated: “This is my tenth album [fourth with Cracker]; I think that hardly a songwriter has enough experience to fill more than two albums with autobiographical songs. There are a few exceptions like Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Dylan, but the majority just keeps recycling their experiences. They warm up things. That’s a bit stale, isn’t it?” So the “gentlemen” with the blues are characters only. In the same NYROCK interview Lowery went on to say: “I invent characters. I write songs with some sort of script in the back of my head. I invent the characters and give them characteristics and features, and I let them talk in the songs. I let them express their views, their emotions, their passions. A lot of people think they’re my own, but they’re not.” Personally, I don’t buy all that Lowery had to sell about his detachment from his lyrics – especially not as to those on Gentleman’s Blues. There is a thread that binds the album’s songs together and makes them a full-blown story, not a mish-mash of vignettes.
The CD cover was signed by Lowery. Hickman and I got involved chatting, and he mistakenly signed it twice so he decided he’d add a drawing of him wearing his pjs. The shot of Hickman is from that night. It was in the early to mid 2000s. That was the first time I met Lowery and Hickman. What a fun night!
The sequencing of the songs on Gentleman’s Blues reveals this tight binding well. Bands take painstaking measures to get the sequence right. Here, Cracker’s sequence leads us through the journey, the movie, the autobiography, and the seven stages of grief as I note above. The opener “The Good Life” (Lowery / Hickman) provides the introduction to the album’s theme, a point of reference. The intro for the song with its mellow, sad guitar is foreboding despite the chorus, “Well I don’t mind saying, this is how the good life’s supposed to be, the good life for you, for me.” This combined with the repeated hook in the solo, which is reminiscent of an up-and-down cycle or that churn in your stomach during gaining air on a bump in the road, makes me wonder if Cracker believes that they have the good life. Lyrically, characters are introduced, “the lesbian James Dean” (in fact, LP, as so dubbed by Hickman), “Aladdin and his lamp,” “a drunken trapeze act,” and “Persephone.” Persephone has always fascinated me in this song: Is she the queen of the underworld that casts the curses on dead souls or is she the promise of life? Either way, “you got all you ever wanted.” Subtle references to celebrity are contained, which then lead into what must be autobiographical lyrics in “Seven Days” (Lowery / Hickman).
“Seven Days” is the quintessential example of Smith’s brilliant mixing on Gentleman’s Blues. The panning on the guitar parts is exceptional on headphones – the rhythm in the right channel, the sweet lead in the left channel – then Lowery’s vocals entering and hitting the bullseye. Lowery’s vocals are particularly larger than life and clear on the verses. He used his usual way of storytelling, not particularly singing, but a melodic chit chat. To Margolis’s recollection, the lyrics for “Seven Days” were completed during recording at Bearsville, NY. For example, “Bugs got a job up in the Catskills” referred to Bugs Salcido being part of the crew on Gentleman’s Blues. Lowery explained in further lyrics: “So we were standing, like the last rock band on the planet” and “So we were standing around, fading in and out of fashion.” Discontent is setting in by chorus time: “Seven days, well I’ve been dreaming . . . of the real thing, of the real thing.” The female backing vocals of Kristin Asbury add intensity to the song, while the mid-section guitar solo rolls along in nearly a happy way – an odd juxtaposition. The drum fills in the ending chorus add to the desire communicated by the female vocals, as well as Lowery’s, setting the table well for “Star” (Lowery / Hickman).
As in “The Good Life,” we have in “Star” the up and then sliding down of the opening guitar hook for the ride. The ride is further pushed along by a pulsating and surprisingly urgent bass line. “We’ll give you everything, things that you’d never need, things that you’d never dream, things like eternity, gonna make you a star” promises the voice. Everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame, but Lowery’s story doesn’t lead you to believe that the fifteen minutes will be gratifying; instead it’s the opposite: “We’ll blow you through the door, into a million bits, we’ll reassemble it, that’s how we’ll make a hit, gonna make you a star.” Now we’re on the path to demise, sadness for what was wished for and received, the gain and the loss. What loss it is, to which “James River” (Lowery) alludes in the album’s fourth track.
“James River” is a song whose time hadn’t arrived until the invention of gentleman’s blues. It was a song that was percolating, marinating, and waiting for context since Lowery’s first incantation of it with Camper Van Beethoven in 1990. Margolis agrees, and so would Lowery based on his opining upon this track on his 300 Songs blog. Lowery explained the evolution of “James River” in his post on September 28, 2010 (# 55):
“So the song started as a Camper Van Beethoven Song. With me trying to evoke what I would term the ‘Old-fashioned seediness’ and ‘antiquated decadence’ of Richmond. There were a surprising number of junkies, drug fiends and decadents in the music scene . . . [s]o that was what first struck me. That’s what the Camper Van Beethoven version and early Cracker demo reflects. Later I would come to appreciate the ‘Elegant Decay’ and ‘Opulent Poverty’ of Richmond VA. Thus the later more gentle more evocative version of the song on Gentleman’s Blues.”
As a bonus to the blog post, Lowery attached the 1990 recordings by Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. The tenor of the song strikingly changed, as well as some of the lyrics.
For Margolis, “James River” was the track for which it was the most difficult to get the right mood. In terms of sequencing, I don’t think Cracker simply chose three rock songs, then a slow song to break up the mix, and then a charming ditty to up the tempo. That’s a bar band trick. The location of “James River” in the tracking is of importance. In movie terms, it brings us to “Act II” where we know there is conflict, change, and drama. There is a very subtle use of panning, not as strong as the opening of “Seven Days,” with rhythm guitar in the right channel, lead guitar and some percussion in the left, but then some key guitar transitions in the right. Where do I listen? Everywhere. The bass line combined with the minor keys conveys the heart of this story. The reverb of the drum beats pulls it down the tracks. Mike Campbell, a then beginner on cello, added lovely live strings. There is a nice breakdown, which seems a bit early in the song but it works, followed later by another, using guitar as the focal point. Those that are familiar with Cracker and Lowery know of his love of his Virginia roots and home. Virginia is used by Lowery quite frequently in his imagery and backdrops for his songs. I get chills every time I cross the James River, usually when on trips to see Cracker, as I remember this song and how it conveys loss: “Would you come across the James River for this heart of gold? For this heart of gold?” and “Would you come across the James River to be my woman again? To be my woman again?” Lowery’s phrasing ends up instead of down on the verses – is this an intentional a way to express hope?
While a stark contrast to “James River,” the upbeat “My Life Is Totally Boring Without You” (Lowery / Hickman / Rupe) still conveys the same message of the preceding track: loss of a loved one or at a minimum loss of a fond acquaintance: “My life is totally empty without you around.” The second verse is fantastic in headphones, another fine moment of the mixing, the engineering, and the work of Smith. The melody is somewhat happy, but the lyrics don’t match. Compare this to Hickman’s song on Kerosene Hat, “Lonesome Johnny Blues” (“Grim Reaper he pulled up into my drive . . . ‘Johnny, I haven’t come for you, but I want someone who’s dear to you and the price you pay is to remain alive’”). “My Life Is Totally Boring Without You” contentedly rocks and sways along, perhaps to break the tension of “James River” or painting the picture of what life is without the woman that Lowery calls to come across the water. “So I’d like to say, I’m better off, I’m better this way . . .” – but he’s not . . . or is he? After all “Around here, everyone loves you, cuz you are insane.” Was the relationship tumultuous or filled with chaos that is missed once it’s gone? Or is boredom peace? Think of this while listening to the guitar solo in the midpoint of the song, which is a bit melancholy but at the same time comforting. I thought that the solo’s phrasing sounded more like Campbell’s, not Hickman’s, but was quickly corrected by Hickman. A particular blog post by Lowery in 300 Songs (# 61, no longer online) addressed the issue of one of Hickman’s hooks being surreptitiously redone by Smith and Campbell and the angst of wondering what Hickman’s reaction would be. The result was something “manly” such as high fiving, back slapping, or the like. According to Hickman, it was the opening lick that was redone by Campbell. Hickman then fashioned the solo and bridge in Smith’s garage studio, dubbed “Costalot” by Smith, which was more illustriously titled The Mile High Club in the album’s credits. Smith sipped his whiskey and grinned when he heard Hickman’s newly crafted parts.
Loss is again expressed in “Been Around The World” (Lowery), which is many a fan’s favorite track off Gentleman’s Blues, including that of Margolis. When I first contacted Margolis by e-mail, he was sly in his response, which was something to the effect of: “‘Been Around The World’ is my favorite. When we talk I’ll tell you why.” Plain and simple Margolis thinks “Been Around The World” is a great song, pointing out the keyboard mix and the distorted sound that Smith crafted. Generally, as I understood from Margolis, for Gentleman’s Blues Cracker initially tracked as a full band, laying down the foundation of many of the songs together, not first the drum track, next the bass track, next the guitar track and scratch vocal track, etc. In a December interview with Faragher, he told me that the new Cracker offering Berkeley To Bakersfield was recorded in a similar manner. Both Margolis and Faragher used the word “organic” to describe the process without prompting. Arrangements were worked out in the studio with the full band. “Been Around The World,” evolved as, per Margolis, Lowery’s rhythm guitar and his Wurlitzer electric keyboard parts weren’t working quite as they wanted. The persistence paid off. The back and forth of the keys and guitar are like a dimming of the lights for romance. Lowery is vocally at his best when he sings in his whispery, quiet, conversational way, starting the song with the line “Well is it such a sin to linger with the magazines?” Listening on headphones, as in other parts of the album, you can hear Lowery’s voice and words that are usually inaudible but kept as part of the mix. This lends to the live recording sound that many tracks have.
Mix wise, the main rhythm is in the right channel, and the keys hook in the left with muddled cues by Lowery’s voice, followed by some punctuated beats of Hickman’s electric guitar in the left. Lowery’s vocals are perfection with his storytelling accentuated by the steady beat of guitar and keys. Except for a brief appearance of a drum beat (maybe a tom?) at the beginning of the track and a few thumps after “Cause the canals in Camden are filled with bottles tonight,” percussion is the combination of these guitar and key parts – drums not truly entering until the start of verse 3. “And how I wish I was in your apartment tonight” with its lead vocal ending down, not up, is in contrast to the phrasing of “James River.” Faragher’s smooth, whispery backing vocals help set the mood. The guitar solo on the album (left channel) is far more subtle than it is live. Performed live, Hickman brings more intensity that leads into the sexiest set of lines any person could hear whispered on a telephone line or read written in a love letter: “How I wish I was in your bed tonight. To taste the salt upon, the salt upon your neck. To feel your body press, pressing down on me.” The outro is a nice weaving of the keys and guitar, then the solo electric guitar lead. Funaro is the unsung hero of this song. His patience and steady pulse on the drums, just a tad on the back, is a true and solid foundation for the give and take between Margolis’s keyboard work and Hickman’s riffs.
As if to convince that it’s all worth it, the being around the world instead of being in a love’s bed, now comes the hip shake, bone break of “The World Is Mine” (Lowery / Hickman). This is one of three songs I want played at my funeral. It’s also my pump-me-up inspirational jam. Back is the rock star character from “Seven Days,” but he’s more pompous: “ . . . but we couldn’t be bothered cause we’re hipper than y’all.” You can ask, you can want, but will he give it? I wonder if the pomposity is truly felt. “The world is mine” could just be a mantra that the lead character needs to repeat again, again, and again to keep going – to survive – to get out of bed and get in the van. A distraction from the things given up for living “the life.” The insistence of this phrase, “the world is mine,” is particularly apparent when the song is played live. The guitar and drums are more powerful and frenzied. While live the ending is clean and followed by cheers from the crowd, on the album the last sound heard is the screech of guitar. Either way, the song is a standout.
“Lullabye” (Lowery), having the false start and then minor keys pulls down the mood. Actually, it sinks it but in a good way. “Only when I laugh does it hurt,” begins Lowery. His vocals are exactly where they need to be in the mix. “Lullabye” is more indicative of Lowery’s imagery that tells a story but is not one that is as straight-forward as the prior songs on Gentleman’s Blues. It’s more like a Robert Altman movie – you’re not sure where you’re going and after you’ve been there you don’t know where you’ve been, but you know you’ve been forever changed. Faragher’s bass line is beautiful. The tune is inconsistent with its title. Instead of complete soothing there is an abundance of dissonance. This is true also of the lyrics: “There’s just a hint of danger in the air / No one is alarmed or seems to care / Everyone is happy, we’re all fine / We all fall in love all the time.” This is forced happiness, the falseness of the every day. The harmonies of the song’s title help lessen the blow. The mix of the female vocals conveys strength without being overpowering of the tone and feel of the song. Why the lullabye? Is it the voice that tells you to go back to sleep and everything will be all right? Is waking the dread? “Yeah, we all fall in love or from a plane / With the stewardess, she serves us in our dreams / When we wake, we find that it has rained / When it rains, it lulls us back to sleep.” The outro and vocals are plaintive – a want for something that is likely not sleep but love. I believe that the female voice here is the uncredited LP.
Smash, boom, bang – time to rise and shine. In comes the lead guitar hook of “Waiting For You Girl” (Lowery / Hickman). Turn this one up and really listen to the understated bass work of Rupe. Gentleman’s Blues, as well as The Golden Age, are the Cracker records that taught me just how intricate the music of the band is. You can listen to a Cracker record time after time and each time hear something new. Sort of like rewatching a fast-paced British comedy. “Waiting For You Girl,” at first listen, is a RAWK song. Good beat, good licks, lyrics for a sing-a-long. Should be a simple arrangement. Layering of vocals and guitar as well as the afore-mentioned bass line reflect that this is not a toss off. Sticking with my theory of the rock star life metaphor for this album or song cycle, has the lead character faded out of fashion as referenced in “Seven Days?” Maybe with the loss of the “Girl” he chose to veer from the path after considering all as set out in “Been Around The World.” Lyrically, and with the giveaway title, it appears that we have the rock song companion to “James River.” Similar story, but set in different places and eras. The song expresses loss, lethargy, and unsureness with the exception of the theme that that girl must come back. She has to come back. The course shall not be righted until then. This is similar to the message of “My Life Is Totally Boring Without You,” particularly the feeling of being resigned to a dull and dreary life.
A new voice enters Gentleman’s Blues at this point, literally and figuratively. “Trials And Tribulations” (Hickman) is the first track sung by Hickman. It also has a different voice from the prior tracks that long for the love lost. This voice appears to be the one of the friend, the counselor, the conscience – move on and learn something. “When your only girl betrayed you, boy / What did you do with your wisdom? / Well you loved that girl again, loved that girl again / Now who you got to blame for your trials and tribulations?” After repeated listening, I believe the voice is actually the same. The song feels more like the singer is giving warning to himself, not another – a reflection. What is to be done? What will be done? This track is a demo that became the final chosen for the album. According to Hickman:
“The rest of the band were asleep after a hard day but I’d been to the local tavern with buddies, and I had this new one I wanted to show them so Frank and me and some of the crew laid it down at about 3 AM fully expecting the guys to build a big version of it later. At one point David and Don said ‘no way . . . it sounds great like this!’ I was like . . . okay, cool. That’s the version you hear on the record. One take, boom . . . done.”
Smith and Lowery were right. The demo was perfect. It reminds me of a song that a group would join in one by one during a moonlit night on a back porch after a satisfying potluck and homemade libations. “Trials And Tribulations” is a true Americana song, fitting well within the definition of “Americana music” that was born in 1995 (i.e., roots, rock, country, folk, bluegrass, R&B, blues). Only Hickman, Funaro, and the strangely compelled Bugs (of “Seven Days”) are credited as musicians on the track. Salcido’s “sidestick” lends well to the raw feel of the song. This hits the high-water mark for one-take wonders.
“Wild One” (Lowery / Hickman / Rupe) follows next, which to me is the misfit in the batch. I look at it as a voice that may be adding strokes to the sketch of the main character in “Trials And Tribulations” in a somewhat chastising way. I have to admit, “Wild One” is my least favorite song on the album even though I love the imagery of the lyrics and the wail of the guitar hook. Maybe it’s because Lowery has told me what this song is about, and I prefer to provide my own interpretation – to take from it what it means to me. Per the online Cracker biography on Sing365, which may have been from the press package for Gentleman’s Blues, Lowery is quoted as saying:
“[‘Wild One’] was inspired by my four-year-old niece. She was kind of having an episode – she was wild, freaking out, had red candy on her face, and wanted to hear one of my earlier songs and scream along with it while we were in my sister’s car. I didn’t want to be too obvious about the source, but ‘Wild One’ is actually a celebration of really childish behavior.”
Musically, I can’t find true fault with this song. It contains a nice break down of drums and percussion with subtle keys. Lowery’s coveted whisper comes in: “You’re a wild one,” repeated over and over again as if to invoke ferocity. The frenetic guitar of the outro conveys chaos. Apparently there was chaos during the tracking of “Wild One,” as Lowery’s voice is heard after the song saying “Ladybug under my shirt the whole time. Freaking me out man.”
Speaking of freaking out, the granddaddy of freak out songs follows “Wild One.” The Hickman-penned “Hold Of Myself” is one of my favorites, but it is now so embedded in me that it is difficult to hear it played whether on CD or live. I tear up every time. In our little movie, we’ve reached the intro to “Act III” – where the protagonist makes a realization that leads to the conclusion of the film. Oftentimes, this is where the hero is far past redemption and knows it. Hickman’s vocals on this tune are stellar. While Lowery’s lyrical storytelling method is a combination of spoken word, whispers, and full voice, Hickman’s method is usually one of full melodic voice in which his inflections and changes in volume move the tale forward. This may be why I think of Hickman’s songwriting as coming from personal experiences or real life events, the autobiographical, while Lowery’s songwriting (as he insists) is not autobiographical but is of many characters that he creates or records. Consistent with most of the other tracks on Gentleman’s Blues, the first verse vocals are pushed up a notch, then in the second verse are down a bit to bring in the full-band aspect of the recording (e.g., “Seven Days”). Cracker fans love to sing along to “Hold Of Myself,” especially when verse two hits: “Got me a dog, think it’s time I got me a dog.” Hickman still hasn’t replaced Pluto, that puppy with the whip tail. I identify with the lines “I miss the days when you could laugh at yourself, you wear my heart out when you don’t want my help.” Vocals are the star of this track. Great mid-point harmonies for the verse beginning “Fork in the road,” and the final line is perfection as Hickman self-fades his voice to an ending whisper as he sings “just tryin’ to get a hold of myself.”
The title track “Gentleman’s Blues” (Lowery / Hickman) calls to mind movie scenes ranging from the end of Casablanca to Tequila Sunrise or any film noir. “Where are my God’s green grasses?” asks Lowery as the vocals enter. The bass carries the tone of the track, while Lowery sings earnestly, “Where are you my sweet darlin’? My sweet darlin’, I’ll drown in misery.” The man from “James River” is back and in a full downward spiral. The orchestral movement of this tune is gorgeous. It is no wonder that this is one of Hickman’s all-time favorite Cracker songs. This track must be autobiographical in some way, knowing the invention of “gentleman’s blues” by Lowery and Hickman as noted above. Gone are the “golden days of summer,” gone is what was held during The Golden Age era – a turning point, good or bad, a “fork in the road” as was foretold in “Hold Of Myself.” I’d love to hear this song performed live. It has a feel and effect similar to “Trials And Tribulations,” but is more polished. There is a slight muffle on the entire song, which lends to the ethereal vibe. The outro guitar solo, combined with the keys, ends the track well in that the track doesn’t end. It fades out with the feeling that there is more to be told, to be learned from living a life of the “gentleman’s blues.”
Some may take issue with my thought that “Wild One” is the oddball of Gentleman’s Blues since the album contains the full-blown circus music track “I Want Out Of The Circus” (Lowery). Certainly we are coming to the grand finale, guns a-blazing, the dying junkie, the child left behind. There is no happy ending. Not in this one. “I Want Out Of The Circus” is rarely played live. Lowery and Hickman performed it as a duo at Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven’s annual Campout in Pioneertown, CA, in September 2014. There is also a live recording of it on disc two of Garage D’Or (2000) where Cracker was joined by the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. Margolis told me that of all the tracks he did for Gentleman’s Blues, “I Want Out Of The Circus” was technically the most difficult of all. Any gigging musician would agree. The music charts alone are a smattering of sharps, flats, naturals, and so many black dots they merge into a Rorschach flashcard. All of the orchestral string sounds are that of Margolis’s painstaking work. Lyrically, this is the most straightforward story told by Lowery on the album. It fits the themes of a musician’s life, loss, hope, despair. The instrumental frenzy of the song is a good contrast to the well-paced and solemn vocals of Lowery. It makes you beg for an end. The final lines of the song bring it – “The old lion’s teeth” (with lovely instrumental runs between lines), “Seems like a smile to me; With some sweet relief, I just stick my head in” . . . “But like the man repeatedly struck by lightning, when he bares his scars, we all know, when he bares his scars he’s a star.” Was the promise of “Star” fulfilled or not? (“Gonna make you, make you a star.”) Certainly, the price was paid.
“Wedding Day” (Hickman) follows “I Want Out Of The Circus.” Its placement in the sequencing may seem jarring, but it does make some crazy sense as it brings full circle the story of the man and his lady lost. What comes of such rejection suffered by the lead character in “I Want Out Of The Circus” whose affections were not returned by the girl in the blue sparkly dress? The feel of this song is similar to “Trials And Tribulations,” and “Wedding Day” could easily be an answer to the questions of that prior track: “What will you do with your wisdom boy?” No wisdom clutched to the chest here: “Yeah, I’m standing in the churchyard, standing here without a sound, wishing I’d been born the kind of man that could go in and shoot you down.” In the mid-section there are keys reminiscent of “Here Comes The Bride,” which are covered by Hickman’s guitar when played live. While that could be cheesy, it’s actually a relief from the tension of the song’s lyrics. It’s refreshing to hear slide guitar on this track, which Hickman should play more. If it’s not slide work, then Hickman is one hell of a string bender. “Wedding Day” is the most Stones-like song on the album, and it could easily fit on Let it Bleed or Exile on Main Street or as a counterpoint to “Dead Flowers” on Sticky Fingers. The harmony parts are beautiful and reminiscent of a traditional country song. Benmont Tench’s touches on organ and piano are apparent on this track.
Closing out Gentleman’s Blues is “Hallelujah” (Lowery), which has Lowery’s vocals sounding at their best. Not only is this Lowery’s top vocal performance on the album, it’s the best recording of his vocals. The vocals are extremely live sounding, as if he’s in the room as the track plays. “We sang hallelujah when it stopped raining.” Could this be a reference to the rain in “Lullabye?” At this point, once the rain stops we are out of the dream world and can recognize what’s truly around us – the acceptance. “God’s green grasses” from “Gentleman’s Blues” have come in a herd of swine. While this sounds like a sparse recording, there is a tremendous amount of music and vocals happening as in the vein of Cracker’s recordings in general as referenced above about “Waiting For You Girl.” There is a lot of restraint by Smith in the mix. Smith knew how to capture the soul of a song, whether it needed to be fully polished to a glimmer or simply left in the rough as it was found. Hickman noted this in his comments above and provided further illumination: “One example of this is ‘Hallelujah.’ David’s vocal is about as real as it gets . . . and you can hear his cowboy boot tapping the wood floor as he keeps time while playing piano.” The backing vocals are not overpowering and lend well to the feel of this prayer-like song. The lyrics of “Hallelujah” are more like those in “Lullabye,” where Lowery blends together phrases that may not ordinarily make obvious sense but make a fine cake. The album closer descends into a dissonant minor prior to ending, which is a bit unsettling and makes me feel that the gentleman’s blues will continue.
As in Kerosene Hat, Cracker sneaks in some hidden tracks. Touchtone sounds from a telephone are found on tracks 18, 20, and 22. Musically, it’s not much. It’s perhaps commentary on the then-present times that make these tracks interesting. Track 18 (1-202-456-1414) is the line to The White House, which at that time was occupied by President Bill Clinton. I called the number, as I did each of the phone tracks, and heard a male voice ask “Operator, how may I direct your call?” after the familiar “This call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes” disclaimer, which was slightly different from other customer service lines. I was surprised to reach a live person and fumbled a bit. I asked where I was calling, was told I should know the party I wished to reach, and replied that the number came up on my caller ID. I was then told that the number did not make outgoing calls, but if it did, it would be a blocked number. The person then told me that the number may have been spoofed on my caller ID. That at least let me off the hook for a random White House call. I’ll have to request my FBI file to be sure. Track 20 (1-202-514-8688) is disconnected. According to Wikipedia, the go-to for all facts, the number was that of the U.S. Department of Justice and formerly used by Ken Starr, the lead of the Clinton impeachment investigation. Track 22 (1-310-289-4459) is still for the office of Julia Kantor, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist. From all this I gather that Cracker wanted me to call Bill Clinton, arrange a meeting, then blab to Ken Starr, and finally participate in family therapy with the Clintons at Kantor’s office so that Bill could resolve his gentleman’s blues. I didn’t make an appointment with Kantor. Instead, I listened to the album’s prologue track “Cinderella” (Lowery).
Neither “Cinderella” nor the telephone tracks are credited on the album. However, it’s clear whose voice is singing. Enter LP, whom to my recollection is the first female lead vocalist on a Cracker studio recording. Listening to the track, you can hear the space and vibe in the room. Like “Hallelujah,” the vocals and band sound like a live take with a sweet ebb and flow. There is a very R&B, soul feeling to the song, including brilliant panning between left and right channels ala a 60s throw-back recording made by Daptone Records in the present day. Listening to the lyrics of “Cinderella” and LP’s passionate vocal, I wonder if there is significance to the use of a female lead on this track. LP’s voice is Joplinesque, but very uniquely her own. Also, I query: Why is the character Cinderella employed? Cinderella, the everywoman that becomes a princess. Perhaps it’s an allusion to the chase by the prince, as Lowery’s lyrics reflect: “I left my Cinderella at the payphone, with a pocket full of dimes; I get the feeling she’s still researching, gonna leave me behind” and “My Cinderella, gone in a day.” This is a more romantic re-appearance of the female longed for in “Waiting For You Girl.” Lowery’s backing vocals play a nice foil to LP’s gut-wrenching cry for Cinderella. LP is certainly not a performer of the “gentleman’s blues.” She wails, she sobs. A key change that elevates the entire feeling of the tune signifying hope, not necessarily a heightened cry of despair, leads into the gorgeous mid-section of the song. Subtle guitar and vocals for the solo and breakdown are employed. As the final chorus arrives there is a nice give and take between the main vocal and lead guitar, with an ecstatic build to properly conclude Gentleman’s Blues.