A short while into Cracker’s 2001 Forever tour, the band’s longtime (extending as far back as Camper Van Beethoven days) label, Virgin Records, suddenly dropped all promotional support. The other shoe fell not long afterwards when frontman David Lowery found himself standing in a Los Angeles parking lot pleading his case to his A&R man’s assistant, who was, of course, having none of it and relishing the power to do so. With the diplomatic mission having failed, the band was left in the lurch with a half-finished record and a growing list of resentments.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Countrysides would never have made it through Virgin’s quality check — not because the music is poor or the idea behind it is shaky, but because to the narrow mind of a major label A&R man, an alt-rock band putting out an album of country songs based on a series of boredom-inspired moonlighting gigs (under the alias Ironic Mullet) wouldn’t appear to be commercially viable. And he might even have a point, were it not for the statistical fact that in the United States country music outsells every genre except — just barely — rap.
Beneath the music, however, we arrive at the other reason why an A&R man might approach Countrysides with apprehension. “[This record] developed a darker edge,” Lowery notes in Ironic Mullet, the fuzzy 20-minute Quicktime movie documentary found on the enhanced portion of the CD. “A lot of that had to do with what had happened to us and the whole country while we were working on this record. We went from being … a nation that had the sympathy of the world for these terrorist attacks … and I just wanted so much for my country not to turn into the yahoo redneck cowboys again that we seem to [become] every twenty years or so. In a way, we took a snapshot, a portrait, of what this country is, and it’s not necessarily flattering. Some of it is and some of it isn’t, but it’s not the picture most people want to see.” In other words, Countrysides expresses some subtle criticisms parallel to those voiced more directly by the Dixie Chicks, the same criticisms that caused their albums to become kindling for bonfires. Thus the alternate explanation for Virgin’s quick dissociation from the project and the band as a whole. Questioning the principles of post-September 11 America is not the best way to drive sales among the country’s rabidly nationalistic public. What flag-waving McCarthyite is going to buy Countrysides when its most appealing song has a chorus that runs, “Do you need anything from duty free? / I’ve got to get the fuck out of the USA”?
Musically, Countrysides is more like the first Cracker album than anything the band has released since, far more countrified than it is rock or alt-pop. Lyrically, it does not sustain the same cleverness and left-of-center approach for which Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven are or were renowned. The bitter Virgin Records kiss-off song “Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself,” while amusing, could have been carried out with a bit more verbal finesse, and the “snapshot” of an arrogant, anti-terrorist America never emerges as wholly as Lowery might think. But “Truckload of Art,” “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers” and “Duty Free” are true highlights, and less obtuse tracks like “Sinaloa Cowboys” (about the illegal manufacture of methamphetamines) and “Reasons to Quit” are a new breed of country song for our cynical, disaffected, postmodern times. Kudos to Cooking Vinyl for issuing an album from a band that Virgin never deserved.