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New Rock and Country California Travelogue

David Lowery can’t get California out of his mind. Though he has mostly divided his time in recent years living in Athens, Ga., and Richmond, Va., his ties to the Golden State remain strong. He still makes music with both of the major bands he started there—Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. And Cracker’s fine new double-CD, featuring the group’s classic lineup of Lowery, guitarist Johnny Hickman, bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Michael Urbano on much of it, is a concept album of sorts about California, called Berkeley to Bakersfield.

The eclectic “Berkeley” disc is mostly rock-oriented, with strains of The Clash, Led Zeppelin and Bowie peaking through at various points, as well as bits of Stax/Memphis soul (“Waited My Whole Life”) and the folkie political kick-off tune, “Torches and Pitchforks.” There’s clever social commentary throughout—very Berkeley—and all but one of the songs are credited to the four band members. The “Bakersfield” disc, dominated by tunes penned by Lowery alone, is country-flavored, with acoustic guitar underpinnings, a different bassist and drummer (Sal Maida and Bryan Howard), as well as prominent pedal steel from Matt “Pistol” Stoessel and some fiddle and banjo sprinkled in. The discs were cut in Berkeley, Athens, Richmond, and Appleton, Wis., of all places. Drew Vandenberg was the primary recording engineer; he also mixed it.   

Lowery says of the project’s genesis, “I was working on our every-10-years, sort-of-country Cracker album here in Georgia [with John Hickman and some local players], and in the middle of this we did a session with the original Cracker lineup. Michael Urbano and Davey Faragher got together for some filming on a documentary, and we did a couple of shows together. We all had some time in September of [2013], so we went into Michael’s studio in Berkeley—East Bay Recorders—and we ended up making up pretty much that entire ‘Berkeley’ disc in about three days.” The group cut mostly live to just eight tracks (“I think there were only two mics on the drums,” Lowery says), and though intended as demos, two of those recordings, augmented with overdubs, ended up on the album. “There was something about the garage-ness and the I-don’t-give-a-shit-attitude in the demos of those two songs that was cool,” Lowery says.

“I got home in October,” he continues, “and I was playing it for Drew [Vandenberg] and Johnny [Hickman] and my wife [and manager, Velena Vego] and we thought, ‘Maybe we have two albums here and we’ll do them sequentially.’ But we also have these two distinct threads through Cracker—the alternative rock, harder-edged kind of songs, and the more rootsy stuff. That’s the essence of Cracker, so we started trying to figure out how to make those two things work together. And the best way to do that was to turn them into a double-album, which required a lot more recording, more writing, and became this monster.”

Recording resumed in Athens at Chase Park Transduction studios with Vandenberg (Of Montreal, Toro y Moi, Widespread Panic, recent Camper Van Beethoven, et al) at the helm. Chase Park is a two-studio complex, with Sony MXP 3036 consoles in each control room “and a great tracking space,” Vandenberg says. “We went out of Pro Tools through the console and then mixed to tape—[Ampex] ATR-102 half-inch. I think it sounds better.

“The vast majority of it was live,” he adds. “Oftentimes Lowery would redo the vocal, and occasionally we would go back and Johnny would want to punch in the solo, so we would pick parts up here and there.” Vandenberg prefers to use traditional analog signal processing, rather than plug-ins, whenever possible, “and Chase Park has more than enough great outboard gear for me.”

Because of the wide range of material on the two discs, Vandenberg used different combinations of mics and signal processing, depending on the style of the music. For example, on Lowery’s vocals, “A lot of times on the ‘Berkeley’ stuff he’d use a dirtier, almost intentionally crappy-sounding mic and go a little more heavy-handed on the compression so I could get a little bit of harmonic distortion,” the engineer says. “Sometimes we’d use a [Shure] 58. Sometimes we’d use this little Electro-Voice 635A, a little handheld omni that has a really biting sound. It’s great if you want a more blown-out, aggressive vocal. But some of the stuff is a [Neumann] U 47—when we were tracking up in Wisconsin they had a vintage one that sounded incredible.”

Mark Golde’s Rock Garden Studio in Appleton became an important stop for the project, “because it was so hard for us to find five days for all of us to get together with our schedules and finish up the recording,” Lowery notes, “but we had a festival show in Wisconsin and we wanted a studio with a real board and we found one up near Green Bay.”

“Johnny and David [Faragher] did a lot of background vocals up there,” Vandenberg says. “Johnny did some guitar overdubs, David replayed a couple of bass things; we did some percussion, acoustic guitar—finishing touches. Mark owns a really awesome console—a custom-made Aengus from 1972, from Indigo Ranch. That board—holy shit!—when I pulled up tracks that I recorded at Chase Park that I already thought sounded great, it blew me away.”

A few tunes were mixed on the Aengus, too, but Vandenberg did most of the mixing at Chase Park. Primary reverbs were a pair of mono EMT 140 plates, along with an Ursa Major Space Station and some Lexicon PCM 41. “I also used actual slap-back from a quarter-inch machine we have. That’s great for vocals, especially on the country material. But it’s not an effects-heavy record. Neither of the two [styles] called for much more than was already there.”