If David Lowery did nothing else but write and record “Teen Angst” for his early 90s debut Cracker album, it would be one heckuva song to be remembered for.
The crackling rocker takes an apparent jab at folk music and conventional wisdom with one of the great lines in a rock song:
What the world needs now
Is a new folk singer
Like I need a hole in my head
The second verse adds:
What the world needs now
Are some true words of wisdom
But Lowery said the song style was actually written from a narrative often seen in country music: the old “third verse switchero.”
“Where you realize the song is about something else,” said Lowery ahead of the Cracker show at the Castle Theatre Sunday night. “And that’s actually what I’m borrowing from with that song, cause I’m not giving that away until the third verse.”
'Cause what the world needs now
Is a new Frank Sinatra
So I can get you in bed
Lowery is the inverse of “nothing else.” Cracker was the follow-up band to his more ska/punkish incarnation Camper Van Beethoven, whose song “Take the Skinheads Bowling” is also one of rock’s great song titles. There are many others.
When he’s not touring with either band (or both), he teaches music business at the University of Georgia, having recently completed his doctorate. So Dr. Lowery stays quite busy touring with his two bands and teaching full-time. He said it’s not as difficult as you might think.
“I teach Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, then basically leave town and do my music stuff,” said Lowery. “I catch up on lectures and grading homework when we’re flying or driving. I forget who said it, maybe it was Elvis Costello who said, ‘I play for free, pay me to travel.’ That’s actually true. Playing a 90-minute or two-hour show is probably the smallest part of your day. And I don’t teach in the summer, I play, so I just work around the two.”
Musicians have known of Lowery's business acumen and advocacy for years. He’s been intimately involved in the business side of his two bands since the mid 80s, and he has been a public advocate for musician’s rights and ardent critic of the music business. He zeroed in on Pandora in 2012 on his Trichordist blog, initiated a class action lawsuit against Spotify in 2015, and has even testified before Congress about what he calls the antiquated formula for how artists are compensated in the digital realm.
And unlike music producer Steve Albini’s belief that the demise of the number of major record labels has freed musicians from the chains of corporate behemoths, Lowery believes the old model, warts and all, was actually better in many ways.
“Before the major labels were your gatekeepers. Now you have a tyranny of choice," said Lowery. “Because there is so much stuff (music) out there now, you have to have publicists, promotion companies, a record label … somebody behind you promoting your stuff. Occasionally something slips through, but that was true in the old days. Camper Van Beethoven is an example of something that slipped through.”
He said the initial CVB album was made for $400 and distributed through independent record stores.
“But when you go from having a few hundred records released per week (when CVB hit in the mid 80s) to basically anybody and anyone … like hundreds of thousands of songs a month uploaded to digital platforms like YouTube, Spotify and SoundCloud … how do you get anyone’s attention?” asked Lowery rhetorically.
He added that record sales once subsidized tours, as only the top artists back in the day actually made money from touring. That’s still true today.
“My wife is a concert promoter and puts on over 1,000 shows a year. And you look at the economics of what the bands are walking out with, you can see they didn’t make any money on that show. Look at all the shows there are. Something like 60% of the revenue goes to the top 1% of touring bands,” said Lowery, alluding to today's paltry by comparison diminished album sales.
Back to his music. Those whose knowledge of Cracker is limited to the big 3 hits of “Teen Angst,” “Low,” and “Get Off This” might be surprised to learn the band has a fairly deep catalogue and released an album roughly every other year since those early to mid 90s hits.
Its most recent release is the ambitious 2014 double album “Berkley to Bakersfield,” which Lowery used to compare and contrast the two different sides of California; The coastal areas many imagine California to be, which evoke images of Santa Monica, Hollywood and the Golden Gate Bridge, and the inland area where Lowery grew up. It’s an area known at least then for dusty ranches and farms, and where his family originally landed to pick fruit in the Coachella Valley.
“And musically these areas are very different. A lot of what we consider classic country music today is actually ‘the Bakersfield sound.’ Which is different than the Texas and Tennessee sound, it’s a little more edgy."
We got oil fields in the Central Valley We cowboys out in the Mojave
Selena Valley, yeah where I come from
We got farms, far as the eye can see
- California Country Boy by Cracker
"So you have rock on the coasts and country inland. And I just wanted to contrast and compare the two sounds because we have elements of both in Cracker. That makes Cracker unique because we have the country side and sort of the rock side and we reach back to both effortlessly. We’ve done that since the first album,” said Lowery.
Cracker plays the Castle Theatre in Bloomington Sunday night. Lowery's new album "In the Shadow of the Bull" will be released this weekend.
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