I used to collect things, but not anymore. I’m in the business of jettisoning unnecessary accumulations now, yet there are things I still miss—like the lime green cassette copy of Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie that I bought in the 8th grade.
An obsessive liner note junkie at that time, I soon came to know the name David Lowery.
That tape opened a portal to truly creative music that wasn’t handed down from my Boomer parents. And that particular cassette led to eventually owning almost everything Lowery has ever put out.
Lowery is wise to the way of the collector, and all its attendant redundancy. “You had to replace that one,” he says when I mention it. “That cassette would have failed eventually.” And it’s true. A vinyl copy of Key Lime Pie is sitting on a shelf a few feet away, plus I had it on CD. Being a music fan was different then. And I still identify as a David Lowery/Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker fan.
David Lowery and his many collaborators have been releasing music consistently since 1985. Camper Van Beethoven released perhaps their most famous single, “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” right out of the gate and got considerable traction for an indie band of their day. Across the long arc of his career, it’s notable that Lowery didn’t put out a solo album until 2011’s The Palace Guards.
“I wanted to do something really small scale and stripped down,” he says. “Although as these solo records have gone on, [the production] sort of built back up with string arrangements and all that… but I originally wanted it to be stripped down and about the words.”
Which made me wonder how he knows which project he’s writing for when an idea arrives.
“I used to always say that I could tell which band it would work with,” Lowery admits, “but when I do these solo songs, I have a specific agenda. There’s a narrative, so unlike the other stuff, I’m starting with the lyrics and moving backwards to the music, which is interesting in that I had always done it the other way.”
The solo stuff is a vehicle for story telling, and Lowery uses it differently than, say, a Cracker song. “You know how musicals can get away with really awkwardly expositive phrases in the middle of a song? That’s what’s really cool about this material,” he says.
None of Lowery’s bands are easy to define. Camper Van Beethoven is sometimes reduced to eclecticism in the press, but in doing so one risks missing their often great songs. If one examines Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven’s bodies of work, Cracker is both a little bit more country and a little bit more rock ‘n’roll. But then there’s a gem like “Sad Lover’s Waltz” from Camper Van Beethoven II & III, and it muddies the waters with its lonesome pining.
A standout for me is “Sick of Goodbye’s,” which he penned with the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. One can probably hear the hurt a bit more in Linkous’s rendition, which Lowery guests on, but the Cracker version is no slouch. More likely though, one will have heard “Low,” a song that reminded me more of The Pixies when it was new but, according to Lowery, was constantly mislabeled as Tom Petty on limewire and the like back when stealing music replaced buying it.
“Low” is a great song, but Lowery is a kind of renaissance man (for one thing he now spends a good chunk of the year as a professor at the University of Georgia). So if Low is all one knows of him, there are great depths lurking below the iceberg’s tip of his biggest hit.
Cracker plays at 6pm, Sunday, June 25 at HopMonk Tavern Novato, 224 Vintage Way. Tickets start at $40.