IT WAS CRACKER’S first two albums that put them on the map, with hits like “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now),” “Get Off This,” “Euro-Trash Girl” and “Low.” But it would be another 10 years before their most daring and underrated record, 2002’s Forever.

This was the first Cracker album that sounded less like a collection of potential hit singles and more like an epic, cohesive whole. On Forever, Cracker dialed back their big, dusty Southern-rock-meets-Southern-California sound and added a layer of shimmering sonic gloss that gave the songs an almost mystical feel.

And while Cracker frontman and primary songwriter David Lowery has written some bizarre characters into his songs—dating all the way back to his early days with Santa Cruz college-rock heroes Camper Van Beethoven, on stuff like “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and “She Divines Water”—the songs on Forever featured some of his finest and weirdest.

There were mermaids and pot-dealing sailors in “Brides of Neptune” (a write-in contender for Cracker’s best song ever), ag-festival beauty queens and bike-riding cross-dressers in “Miss Santa Cruz County.” Along with “Guarded By Monkeys” and even “Merry Christmas Emily,” they were like little self-contained micro-mythologies in themselves.

Cracker never really followed up on the territory it staked out on Forever, shifting direction entirely for their last two records, Greenland and Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey. So it’s interesting that Lowery’s new solo album, The Palace Guards, finally returns him to that odd and vaguely hallucinogenic place.

Tracks like “I Sold the Arabs the Moon” and even the title song, a Syd Barrett like slice of psychedelic paranoia about mysterious characters who work in laboratories and “keep the little piggies safe in their little straw homes” might have even fit on Forever, in full-band versions.

“I think it has been a while since I’ve done stuff like that,” admits Lowery. “It was exciting for me. The last two Cracker records were very realist. They had a harsh edge to them—the last record starts out with the soldier in Iraq. They’re just very real.”
Interestingly, The Palace Guards might indeed have been Lowery’s follow-up to Forever, if he hadn’t been sucked back into the siren song of the Cracker creative process.

“When we get the Cracker guys all together, there’s a lot of momentum that happens really fast,” he says. “We’re good at writing and arranging songs really quickly, throwing a lot of ideas out. So twice albums were made by Cracker before I could finish my solo record.”

It didn’t help that Lowery kept poaching his own solo ideas for the Cracker records, as was the case with two songs on Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey.

“‘Turn On, Tune In’ works great as a Cracker song, but that sort of started out [on the solo album], and so did ‘Darling One.’ They ended up moving over to the Cracker record,” says Lowery.

For the latter, all they ended up doing to the original solo demo was adding guitar from Cracker co-founder Johnny Hickman, bass from Sal Maida, and a guest spot from Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, who Lowery calls part of “our little Northern California mafia.”

Lowery admits the biggest question about The Palace Guards is “Why, after 27 years, make a solo album? Especially if you’re the main songwriter.” Not only that, but he’s in two bands, Camper and Cracker, with a diverse enough sonic range to let him do just about whatever he wants musically.

“It’s not necessary at all,” he confesses. “It’s just so much easier to explain ‘this is a solo record’ than to say, ‘This is a record I made with the guys at my studio,’ and throw a third band into the mix. We’ll probably do another one, cause it was fun. It’ll take another 27 years to do, maybe, but yeah.”

Meanwhile, Cracker is continuing to play live, as they will next week at Music in the Park in San Jose on July 28. Lowery has also been performing solo; at a recent show at Caf du Nord in San Francisco, he told stories in-between songs and played songs from the new album as well as acoustic versions of Cracker favorites like “Big Dipper” and “I Want Everything.”

Camper Van Beethoven is gearing up for a tour in which the band will perform the Key Lime Pie album in its entirety. And Lowery continues to post the song-by-song history of his career on his blog, which has also become a place for him to put up some interesting demos from throughout his bands’ histories. The rediscovery of those demos may have influenced The Palace Guards.

“My wife is always telling me, ‘There’s something about the demos I really like. You just sound a little crazier in the demos,’” says Lowery. “That extends also to when me and Johnny are working together. We sound more unhinged or something like that. In a certain way, this solo album was designed to preserve a little of that. Like, yeah, basically we don’t get out very much. We spend a little too much time in the studio in the dark. That’s sort of what the idea was.”
Music in the Park
July 28, 5:30pm, Plaza de Cesar Chavez, San Jose; free.