Voice Over

It's a year later and GBV is back on the bill at Gibson's. Will the band actually perform? Will Pollard try to sneak a cold one onstage with him? The show should be a winner, but all bets are off.

Guided by Voices is scheduled to perform on Saturday, May 11, at Gibson's in Tempe, with Spoon. Showtime is 9 p.m. (all ages).

Cracker
The Golden Age
(Virgin)

"This is the Golden Age," Cracker leader David Lowery sings on the title cut of his band's new CD. But Lowery, one of the all-time smart-asses in alternative rock, knows better. You can hear it in the weariness and resignation in his voice. Yes, this CD could very well usher in a Cracker dynasty on the pop music time line. But it could also just as easily render Lowery's long-promising band past its prime.

The Golden Age feels like a make-or-break effort. It sounds like the kind of ornate, carefully crafted product a band produces to prove to itself and others that it's still a contender. When younger artists present this kind of fussy work, as Billy Corgan did with Smashing Pumpkins' latest epic, it's generally seen as a sign that an up 'n' comer can indeed deliver the goods. It's different when an aging act noisily tries to extend itself. Such efforts often carry a hint of desperation.

And there are hints of desperation in the way Cracker carries on here.
Why else would the normally frill-free Lowery throw in every special effect his engineers could get their hands on? The CD is festooned with all sorts of decorative sounds--space-age beeps and buzzes, country-fried fiddles, swelling string sections and voice-box guitars, a la Peter Frampton. When Lowery shouts his lyrics through a bullhorn or uses Joan Osborne's vocals instead of his own, it feels like Cracker sitting in on another band's album.

Lowery and his Cracker pals--guitarist Johnny Hickman, bassist Bob Rupe and drummer Charlie Quintana--are far more convincing when they don't try so hard. "How Can I Live Without You," for example, is a wonderfully laid-back slab of country-funk with wise-ass Lowery wondering, "How can I live without you/If it means I gotta get a job?" The song's ease of effort sets it apart from this disc's frantic opening cut, "I Hate My Generation," which finds a sarcastic Lowery screaming the chorus at the top of his scrawny lungs. The song's faux ferocity has all the empty emotion of Frank Black's equally automatic scream-on-demand technique.

The bells and whistles and other add-ons that clog the CD also obscure Lowery's moments of real growth. Two songs in particular, "Dixie Babylon" and especially "Big Dipper," come closest to the bone because they show Lowery allowing himself to bleed. "I really must confess/I'm feeling quite distressed/My stars are always crossed," Lowery sings next to Hickman's austere twang on "Dixie Babylon."

Even better is the charged, reflective mood on "Big Dipper," with Lowery playing a guy hanging out in a cafe, smoking cigarettes, thinking about getting a new tattoo while waiting for the courage to pick himself up and confront life, face first. "Hey June," he sings, "Why'd you have to come around so soon/I wasn't ready for all this nature/The terrible green, green grass/The violent blooms of flower dresses/And afternoons that make me sleepy." Then he sees a girl walk by and imagines both of them crossing life's Rubicon together: "We could wait awhile/Before we push that dull turnstile/Into the passage/Where thousands they have tread/And others sometimes fled/Before the turn came." That's good stuff.

Lowery's attempts to graduate from eternal wisenheimer to wistful observer ultimately survive the CD's inconsistent aural mood. And indeed, the assorted styles and noises on The Golden Age ultimately make for an estimable collection of songs. In flailing around to find his second wind, Lowery has scored a critical success. Still, the CD feels like an overt push for commercial success, and in that regard, Cracker may still have to wait for its golden age.--Serene Dominic

Cracker is scheduled to perform on Thursday, May 9, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Sparklehorse. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).

Ass Ponys
The Known Universe
(A&M)

On its second major-label offering, this Ohio foursome continues to ponder the riddles of the universe, like incredible shrinking men. Most of singer Chuck Cleaver's harrowing insights are filtered through small-town eyes, giving as innocent and limited a view of the world as an outdated children's encyclopedia, which The Known Universe's packaging parodies with off-handed panache.

But don't make the mistake of thinking there's anything here aside from stock photos and insect diagrams to align this album with Pearl Jam's Vitalogy. The Known Universe revolves around rural rock rhythms and Cleaver's whiny, worrisome voice, which sounds like a fearful kid being forced to sing "I'm a Little Petunia" in front of the class.

Throughout the album, Cleaver recounts man's goofy dominion over defenseless little creatures. On "God Tells Me So," he justifies cruelly turning a magnifying glass on some ants with the argument that, in the greater scheme of things, the Almighty is subjecting him to the same karmic crap.

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