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Record Review

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It didn't take long for some fans and critics to turn against Cracker's David Lowery. He'd essentially been written off as a sellout by 1993, a mere three years after the demise of his last project, Camper Van Beethoven, a band hailed as the embodiment of all that was galvanizing about '80s college rock. That same year, Cracker's second album, Kerosene Hat, actually improved upon the glib, subversively literate desert-twang formula of the group's self-titled debut, helping clear the decks for a crop of young, smart guitar-driven acts -- Weezer and Green Day among them -- to move in on grunge and give its sorry ass a crafty kick.

And therein lies the irony: Cracker was dismissed just when it was doing radio the most good. But Lowery and his guitar-slinging pal, Johnny Hickman, have hung in there regardless. And at times, Forever, Cracker's fifth studio release and its first in four years, has the feel of a comeback album. The first track, "Brides of Neptune," is the most priceless piece of inspired nonsense Cracker has cooked up in years, thick with Mellotron-heavy melodrama and sickly sweet surrealism. The lyrics are vintage Lowery, mingling the ridiculous ("I tried dating a mermaid/She buys pot from the first mate") with more profound stream-of-consciousness imagery for an underhandedly cinematic epic. "Shine" is cynical little piece of pop handiwork with a soaring white-trash gospel chorus, while "Merry Christmas Emily" and "Miss Santa Cruz County" nail one of Lowery's favorite targets -- the self-absorbed drama queen -- with just the right balance of empathy and sarcasm.

Sadly, the rest of the disc finds the band coasting in place, taking in the same chewed-up gag-rock/psych-blues scenery again and again. Forever has its timeless moments. But more often, Cracker sounds like a band living on borrowed time -- and hardly breaking a sweat while doing so.

Cracker plays the Roxy Sat., April 13.

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