Feb 27, 2002 at 12:00 am

The last time we heard from Cracker, on 1998’s tedious Gentleman’s Blues, the band was in the midst of what the Detroit Lions call a “rebuilding period.” The folksy blues (or bluesy folk) of that album announced that Cracker was leaving behind the stoner alt-rock of its previous hits like “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now).” Problem was, the band didn’t seem to know what to do to fill the hole left by the absence of power chords and anthemic choruses.

Thankfully, that hole has been spackled over on Cracker’s fifth album, Forever. Frontman David Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman have steeped themselves in roots rock here, with country-fried guitars and scruffy rhythms resulting in down-home songs that wouldn’t sound out of place being performed at a Cracker Barrel. (No pun intended.)

There’s just enough stylistic variety here to keep things from getting dull too, but not so much that it feels as forced as Lowery’s (still great) old band, Camper Van Beethoven. “Guarded by Monkeys” is a goofy, muscular rocker, but it is quickly followed up by the gospel-flavored folk of “Ain’t That Strange.” (Gomez would kill for a song with the surly, swampy appeal of “One Fine Day,” I might add.)

Best of all, Lowery has relocated his gift for spinning hummable melodies out of his microscopic vocal range. The infectious “Don’t Bring Us Down,” for instance, contains Cracker’s best chorus since “Low,” and the glistening “Brides of Neptune” finds Lowery earnestly wheezing a tale of mermaids.

At first, the unpretentious gaiety of Forever seems like a put-on (this is, after all, the band which once wrote a song called “Don’t Fuck Me Up With Peace and Love”). However, once you give yourself over to the spirit of fun here, you’ll believe in the power of Cracker Soul.

Chris Willie Williams writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].