The Palace Guards
Jeder kennt sie: Camper Van Beethoven und Cracker gehören zu den beliebtesten und erfolgreichsten Bands, wenn es um americanasierte Indie/Alternative Rock-Musik der vergangenen 25 Jahre geht. Aber wer ist DAVID LOWERY? Nun, niemand Geringerer als der Macher hinter beiden Institutionen! Er ist als Sänger, Gitarrist, hauptsächlicher Songschreiber und Frontmann, Bandleader & Co-Gründer verantwortlich für den ganz speziellen, einzigartigen Charakter beider Kultbands. Ab der zweiten Hälfte der 80er für den eher verspielten, geistreichen, mit experimentellen Ansätzen durchsetzten Aufbruchs-College Rock von CVB inklusive ihrer Underground Radio-Hymne 'Take The Skinheads Bowling'. Und seit 1992 zusammen mit Johnny Hickman bei Cracker mit einer straighteren, professionelleren Weiterführung des CVB-Mythos in einer ausgezeichnet funktionierenden Mischung aus nahezu konventionellem Guitar Rock mit Tendenzen zu Folk & Country und frühen Punk & Indie-Einflüssen mit krachenden Gitarren und entfesselten Liveauftritten. Und regelrechten Hits: 'Teen Angst', 'Low', 'Eurotrash Girl', 'Golden Age' und kürzlich 'Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me'!
Dieser David Lowery hat nun im Alter von immerhin auch schon 50 tatsächlich sein spätes Debütalbum veröffentlicht - The Palace Guards. 9 Songs sind darauf enthalten, die einerseits - allein schon wegen dieser hervorstechenden Stimme - das bewusste Lowery-Charisma transportieren, auf der anderen Seite aber auch deutlich machen, warum sie nicht schon längst auf einer Cracker-CD oder für eines der jüngeren CVB-Reunion-Projekte verwendet wurden: Sie passen nicht so eindeutig in ein Lager! Über den langen Zeitraum von 7 Jahren hat David Lowery an ihnen gearbeitet, was er sich leisten kann - schließlich gehört ihm das berühmte Sound Of Music Studio in Richmond, Virginia, in dem seit Mitte der 90er nicht nur sämtliche Cracker/CVB-Scheiben aufgenommen wurden, sondern auch Acts wie Sparklehorse, Gutterball, Archers Of Loaf, Comas, Royal Trux, Lucero, Magnolia Electric Co., Koester und Clem Snide zuhause waren. So kümmerte er sich neben den offiziellen Terminen immer wieder um seine eigene Musik. Stücke wie das country-rockige, mit Banjo und Harp unterlegte 'Raise 'Em Up On Honey', der straighte, mit lautem Chorus ausgestattete und im Shouter-Stil gesungene Rocker 'Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me', das locker dahinrollende, easy folk-poppige, mehrstimmige 'Submarine', 'Deep Oblivion' mit seinen deutlichen drogen-psychedelischen Anspielungen und einem herrlich vernebelten Slow Groove, der semiakustisch/elektrische Roots Rock von 'Ah, You Left Me', das einzige Fremdstück hier (von der holländischen Indie Rock Band The Mints), das irisch-folkige, mit feiner Fiddle-Arbeit von Ferd Moyse verzierte Irak-Reiseerlebnis 'I Sold The Arabs The Moon' oder das komplizierte, rhythmisch verzwickte 'The Palace Guards', seine Lieblingsnummer - der schlichte Grund, weshalb das Album auch so heißt!
The Palace Guards, ein Soloalbum... - ja, sicher, wie eben erklärt. Andererseits auch ein unbedingtes Teamwerk, das mit vollen Bandarrangements ausgestattet ist und in einem offensiven, häufig richtig satten Sound daherkommt. Neben David Lowery, der wie üblich akustische und elektrische Gitarren, Harmonica sowie gelegentliche Keyboards spielt und auch mal an Bass und Schlagzeug zu hören ist, wirken die Sound Of Music-Mitbesitzer/Ton & Klangmeister Alan Weatherhead (Guitars, Pedal Steel, Keyboards, Banjo, Bass), John Morand (Percussion, Programming), Craig Harmon (Orgel, Klavier) und Miguel Urbiztondo (Drums) maßgeblich und kompetent mit. Der aktuelle Cracker-Bassist Sal Maida und der stark frequentierte und auch oft bei Cracker/CVB mitspielende Studiogitarrist David Immerglück (Counting Crows, John Hiatt, Chuck Prophet) dürfen genausowenig fehlen wie die beiden Chorgirls Shannon Worrell und Kristin Asbury-Hott (aka September 67). Der kürzlich verstorbene Klangtüftler und Indie-Singer/Songwriter Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse!) ist mit seinem vielleicht letzten Beitrag an den Tasten für 'Big Life' dabei und David Lowery's Partner bei Cracker, Johnny Hickman, bringt es auf immerhin vier ganze Gitarrenlicks bei 'Raise 'Em Up On Honey'. Das ist dann auch vielleicht der beste Beleg dafür, dass es sich bei The Palace Guards wahrlich nicht um einen egozentrischen Solotrip handelt, sondern wie wichtig es David Lowery als harmoniebewusster Mensch war, alle seine Freunde und langjährigen Mitstreiter in irgendeiner Form an diesem Projekt zu beteiligen. Die Chemie stimmt hier - das hört man von der ersten bis zur letzten Note!
David Lowery, co-founder, frontman and guitarist of country psychedelic rockers Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven presents The Palace Guards, his witty, lyrically clever and incisive, musically eclectic (and, in some ways, 27 years in the making!) solo debut on Blue Rose Records. A self-professed studio cat who says it’s a “happy accident” that he ever became a lead singer of a rock band, Lowery concocts a diverse array of recorded at his Sound of Music Studios in Richmond, Virginia. A batch of incredible songs that didn’t quite fit the vibe of Cracker or Camper Van Beethoven, Lowery was actually working on the compositions for The Palace Guards quietly behind the scenes while working on Cracker’s last two records..
For Lowery one of the most exciting parts of the recording experience was the powerful creative chemistry he shared with his band of musician friends that appear on this album—all of whom he has worked with at his popular independent studio for fifteen years. Producer/engineer Alan Weatherhead, who plays guitar and pedal steel guitar on The Palace Guards, has mixed records for Sparklehorse, The Comas, The Cardigans and of course, Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, among numerous other indie bands who appreciate his naturally experimental style. Another is John Morand, one of Lowery’s inner circle who basically was the glue that held the whole thing together.
One of the owners and manager of SOM since 1997, drummer Miguel Urbiztondo is known around Sound of Music as the straw that stirs the studio’s drink. His percussive expertise has graced sessions by Daniel Johnston, Nina Perrson/Cardigans, Sparklehorse, Koester and Cracker.
The album also features the exciting Hammond B3 Organ of another of the studio’s owners, Craig Harmon, a lawyer who has represented the studio. Studio co-founder John Morand is also featured on drums and synths. The Palace Guards was recorded by Morand, Weatherhead and Lowery.
“One of the reasons the album sounds the way it does is that I have pretty strong personalities playing with me,” says Lowery, “guys who I’ve worked with for years, who have done engineering or playing on Camper and Cracker albums. There’s that instant easy rapport that shines through. Working with them brought out the more extreme edges in these songs and amplified them. It was also liberating to start with no preconceived notions of what they would end up sounding like or worrying about how they might sound in a live setting, as I have to do when I write songs for Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven.
“It’s very much a studio project geared around making the unique contributions of all the musicians involved come across,” he adds. “On other projects, the craziness of the demos doesn’t come across in the finished tracks. But here, there was nothing stopping us. I felt like a mad scientist holed up in the studio, being my naturally introverted self, developing songs that no one else would sing, working with some amazing musicians. Because of my busy schedule with Cracker and Camper, this took several years to complete, but in many ways, it was the easiest record I’ve ever made. It was all about letting my own personality shine through in the songs—pure self indulgence!”
Fans curious to take the brash and irreverent singer/songwriter’s spirited musical journey will immediately dig into the irony rich phrases sung by what he calls an “unreliable narrator” in each of The Palace Guards’ nine pieces. Lowery is a man of many musical moods which is apparent on this album—from harmonica laced country rock (“Raise ‘Em Up on Honey”), to the swirling, languid psychedelic (“Deep Oblivion”) and steel guitar driven roots rock (“Ah You Left Me,” a song originally recorded by the Dutch band Mint) to folky Irish music (“I Sold The Arabs The Moon”), and dreamy, 60s flavored pop-rock.
A deeply introspective songwriter, Lowery has a theory that if you could describe what you’re trying to say in a song in a paragraph or two, there would be no reason to write the song. The good news is, he’s quick to follow that idea up with some quirky anecdotes to enhance the listener’s experience. He likes to call the jangly, banjo and harmonica laced country rock jam “Raise ‘Em Up On Honey” the sequel to “Turn On Tune In Drop Out With Me,” sort of like the “Petticoat Junction” to the original song’s “Green Acres.” It’s very much an ode to the style of Camper and the psychedelic folk rock of Country Joe and the Fish—with veiled drug references and end of the world scenarios along the way. The mood swing-filled title track, which evolves from a strumming acoustic song to a full on electric guitar rocker, began as a kid-friendly song but ultimately became a tune about a passive aggressive superhero who protects the populace of the kingdom less than he stalks and controls them.
On “Deep Oblivion,” the English Victorian imagery conjured by its narrator fall in a bed of English indie electronic pop. Its romantic tale of a self destructive character rescued by a lovely woman reminds Lowery of Edward Gorey’s classic macabre illustrated books. The Palace Guards’ lone cover is the mystical, psychedelic steel guitar driven roots rocker “Ah You Left Me,” an emotional tearjerker about trying to wash away the pain but not being successful at it. The song was originally recorded by the Dutch band Mint, who recorded at Sound of Music Studios and felt it reminded them of the Cracker tune “Golden Age.” Lowery rocks out on the simple but hard to resist (especially because he’s practically screaming in your face!) “Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me,” inspired by a big celebrity’s dalliances with prostitutes and the words he might use to make amends.
Lowery wrote the haunting, Irish sea shanty flavored acoustic ballad “I Sold The Arabs The Moon” while he was on Cracker’s USO tour in Iraq. He calls it a 2000 year geopolitical ditty, “1,300 years of Middle Eastern history boiled down to the moon, the sea and the sky.” First the Arabs navigated the desert by moonlight, then the English ruled the Middle East with the world’s most powerful navy and now, the Americans. “Marigold,” a bright and frothy, soaring and dreamy folk rocker, is based on a short story Lowery wrote called “Conquistador,” about a dying man looking for his first love in Ecuador and the Andes. The circus organ that launches “Big Life” matches the wistfully optimistic, celebratory vibe of the lyrics, a hard hitting reminder to look at the big picture and not get so wrapped up in the small things of life. It should inspire folks to step away, look at the big sweep of their lives, and realize what they have accomplished. “Submarine,” the easy rolling electric bluesy-folk number that closes The Palace Guards, is Lowery’s response to “Deep Oblivion” and a playful, jab filled love song to his wife Velena Vego, who is the manager for both Camper and Cracker.
Hard to believe, but it’s been nearly 20 years since “Don’t F*** Me Up (With Peace and Love”)—a highlight on their self-titled major label debut--endeared Cracker’s whimsical and satirical country-psychedlia-folk influenced Americana-rock to the masses. Eight albums, two gold records and 21 countries full of Crackerheads after becoming MTV sensations via their Modern Rock Chart hits “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)” and “Low,” they’re still rolling along, giving Lowery a sense of joyful hope that he likes to mask (in real life and his writing) with just enough fatalistic black humor to make things interesting.
A quick rundown of Cracker’s history begins in the mid-80s in Santa Cruz, California, when David Lowery,Victor Krummenacher, Chris Molla and Jonathan Segel formed Camper Van Beethoven, and their jangly and stoned “Take The Skinheads Bowling” became an instant college radio staple. Camper Van Beethoven disbanded, rather eventfully, in Sweden, following their second major label release. When Lowery formed Cracker with his longtime friend Johnny Hickman—the two grew up together in Redlands, California—and original bassist Davey Faragher, their sound had less in common with Camper’s exotic excursions and was more in synch with the Kinks and Southern Roots Music. They released their self-titled debut on Virgin, and following the #1 Modern Rock hit “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)” the band became a commercial sensation (complete with MTV exposure) with the platinum selling Kerosene Hat and its enormous, era defining hit singles “Low” and “Eurotrash Girl.”
Cracker continued to evolve after the release of The Golden Age (1996), when Lowery also began producing artists like Counting Crows. A new lineup featuring Funaro and keyboardist/accordion player Kenny Margolis joined up for Gentleman’s Blues (1998). Cracker remain a huge global touring sensation and released popular live set Traveling Apothecary Show & Review in addition to their studio sets Forever and a rowdy collection of country covers Countrysides (2003). In 2006 coinciding with the release of Get On With It: The Best of Cracker on Virgin Records, the band re-recorded their greatest hits and released their own version on the same day which outsold Virgin’s 10-1 the first week. In 2006, Cracker also released the cathartic and nakedly emotional Greenland, which featured guest artists like David Immergluck and Mark Linkous.
The real story of Cracker/Camper’s success is not that they recorded some songs that were hits in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The real story is that twenty years after those hits they are still a vital part of the indie/ alt-Americana music scene. They are still garnering acclaim for their recordings and securing choice film, commercial and television placement for the their new songs. Few other bands could make such a claim.
It’s been a whirlwind year and a half since the release of Cracker’s 429 Records’ label debut Sunrise in The Land of Milk and Honey, with lots of great press and one of their best charting singles in years. “Turn On Tune In Drop Out With Me” reached #13 on the Triple AAA charts and was the featured song on the season finale of Showtime’s “Californication.” The band also performed 200 shows in 17 countries, including two weeks of war zone concerts in Iraq and Kuwait on a USO Tour. Lowery calls their USO engagement an “Apocolypse Now” musical experience, as they would helicopter into actual patrol bases to play for servicemen and women dressed for full battle.
“My own kids have a band now,” says Lowery, “and while I’m proud and supportive of them, it’s not something I would naturally have encouraged them to do. No matter how much success Camper and Cracker have had, it’s always been a tough business, and it only gets more challenging every year. It’s one thing to be in a band and touring in your 20s, but you’ve got to have some real belief in yourself to be 50 as a cult musician touring the world—and helicoptering into war zones in Iraq to boot! Even though the ups and downs have hardened me to a certain extent, there are always those bright spots that lead me to a song like ‘Big Life’ on The Palace Guards. There is still a lot to be optimistic about.”