Cracker reappears Jan. 29 with "Forever," the band's first album of all-new original material since "Gentleman's Blues" in 1998. The set -- which follows five releases on Virgin -- is the first collec

Cracker reappears Jan. 29 with "Forever," the band's first album of all-new original material since "Gentleman's Blues" in 1998. The set -- which follows five releases on Virgin -- is the first collection by the group for the Back Porch imprint, which falls under the Virgin umbrella.

"By putting them on Back Porch, I think it's going to give them a lot more focus," Back Porch president Ken Pedersen says. "The last Cracker record [went out] as one of the 40 releases [on Virgin] during the year. With Back Porch going through [distributing Virgin-associated label] Narada, this is one of the biggest releases of the year."

Cracker co-leader David Lowery says of the new association, "Ken Pedersen is just a really big fan of the band, and he came to us one day and said, 'Hey, this will be better for you guys,' and basically made us an offer we couldn't refuse. So we said, 'Hey, we'll try it.' And given the turmoil in the music business right now and Virgin going through some stuff, it's nice to be working with some people who are secure in their jobs."

The songs on "Forever" were the product of an interesting geographical compromise made by Lowery, who lives in Richmond, Va., and his writing/performing partner, Johnny Hickman, who resides in Redlands, Calif.

Hickman explains, "We started meeting up in Tucson [Ariz.] over the course of the last year, here and again, to just hang out and write songs. It really worked well for us, because we just holed up in the middle of the desert. We'd go down to the bar, have a drink or two, come back, and we'd bring a keyboard and a guitar and see what kind of ideas popped up, and if none popped up, it was no big deal. Some of those sessions, we got two or three songs out of one hang."

Lowery, who co-produced some of Cracker's previous work, ended up taking a solo production credit on the new album, which was cut at his Richmond studio during the course of a year with pianist Kenny Margolis and drummer Frank Funaro -- both longtime members -- and new bassist/vocalist Brandy Wood.

While Cracker's bedrock rootsy sound is much in evidence, both Lowery and Hickman note with some amusement certain Anglophiliac tendencies in the songs. Lowery -- who views himself as "a Rolling Stones guy" rather than "a Beatles guy" -- says, "I guess you'd call it this Beatles element, sort of in that direction. Songs like 'Ain't That Strange' and 'Sweet Magdalena of My Misfortune' are pretty traditional Cracker things, but songs like 'Shine' are pretty different."

Hickman adds, "We kept saying, 'But this sounds so British! This sounds so British!' We would laugh about it, so it wasn't a conscious thing. You can't deny what's in your blood, and David and I were both influenced by the reflection of American music as played by more of the second wave of British Invasion bands. David and I were [also] really into a lot of the '80s British bands, like the Clash and Elvis Costello. It just filters its way into what we do naturally."

The highly Beatles-esque first single, "Shine," will be worked at triple-A, rock, alternative, and college radio this month, according to project manager Cheryl McEnaney. She adds that radio stations' Web sites will also be serviced with low-budget Quick Time video clips shot by Lowery.

The label has also brought in niche specialists Pro Sports Music Marketing to work another song. "They are marketing the track 'Don't Bring Us Down,' which has the lyric 'get your sorry ass back to Florida,'" McEnaney explains. "This is Ken Pedersen's idea. It's got a slightly anthemic quality. Their goal is to get it played in the context of sports games, on coverage on television and radio, potentially get the guys to sing the National Anthem someplace. [Pro Sports Music are] the guys who broke [the Baha Men's] 'Who Let the Dogs Out' in that arena -- no pun intended -- and they've already had some bites from some surprising teams."

The first 20,000 copies of "Forever" will be packaged in a slimline jewel box and include a full-length CD -- drolly titled "Hello Cleveland!" -- culled from two live performances on WXRT Chicago.

The band plans to tour Europe in the coming weeks -- a London show is already scheduled for Feb. 21, followed by dates in Brussels, Hamburg, Cologne, Amsterdam, and Paris. U.S. dates will begin soon after, with a March 3 show in New York already on the band's schedule.

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