Cracker: Berkeley to Bakersfield
Camper van Beethoven joker-in-chief turned Cracker singer-songspokesperson David Lowery was always too ironic by approximately 72 percent. But he’s older than that now. The Californian turned Georgian pursues what musical career remains to him, lectures in business at UGA, and devotes much of his energy to his unofficial post as scourge-in-chief of a supposedly futuristic streaming economy that he claims, accurately, is “unsticking it to the man and sticking it the weirdo freak musicians!” And this crusade has awakened in him an explicit class consciousness often discernible in his songs from the start and just as often undercut by his snark. The Berkeley disc of this double-CD celebrates what might be called protest culture, lobbing stink bombs at the rich as it celebrates the lifestyles of the quasi-bohemian lower middle class. The Bakersfield disc aims for an Inland Empire country-rock that goes soft the way country-rock does but still sneaks a migrant laborer and a dead junkie in with the San Bernardino boy and the red-state union man, neither of whom lack charm themselves. Politics! On an American rock album! So much rarer a thing than the snark-damaged claim! A MINUS
The Mountain Goats: Beat the Champ
As interested parties didn’t need me to tell them, John Darnielle’s latest is a concept album about the professional wrestlers of his ‘70s youth. The romanticization of the grotesque not being my thing, I have no inkling which stories are legendary and which extrapolations. But I like them all. I thank Darnielle for naming like-father-like-son Chavo Guerrero as he wages his battle against evil and Bull Ramos as he holds onto his whip for dear life. But the anonymous ferocity of “Werewolf Gimmick” and camaraderie of “Animal Mask” are just as inspirational. And although the opener establishes a tender lyricism consonant with Darnielle’s own, there’s no mistaking the album’s most indelible line: “I will stab you in the eye with a foreign object.” That’s the name of the song‑-“Foreign Object.” A MINUS
Sun Kil Moon: Benji
Mark Kozelek has always been one more alt-rock sad sack to me, and without much a beat at that, so I won’t pretend there’s any musical reason to listen to this wall-to-wall bummer. But where he’s generally obsessed on an alt-rock melancholy about which most human beings could care less, here he explores something that happens to everyone: death in the family, mostly in working-class Ohio, where he grew up. There’s his second cousin Carissa gone at 35 in a freak garbage fire, his uncle gone the same way long ago, his kindly grandma in L.A., and worst of all his dad’s pseudonymous mercy-killing friend‑-who with his wife taken out of her misery turned the gun on himself only then “failed at suicide” and got sentenced to prison. All of which induces him to write “I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” and whether you’re attracted to his songs or not you feel just how bad this depressive is gonna hurt when his long-separated parents go. That’s musical enough for me. B PLUS
Modest Mouse: Strangers to Ourselves (Epic) Still anxious after all these years‑-at a level of articulation so developed I can’t tell you why they don’t just move on already (“Sugar Boats,” “God Is an Indian and You’re an Asshole”) ***
Clem Snide: Girls Come First (Zahpwee) Wise advice, unmistakable empathy, questionable promises, pained voice, minimal band (“Grace,” “Wendy”) **
Mac McCaughan: Non-Believers (Merge) Less nostalgia for a postpunk youth than a historical record (“Only Do,” “Box Batteries”) *
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