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Wearing a ratty flannel shirt, brown khakis, and dusty shoes, a lanky David Lowery shuffles on to the cramped stage. He takes a moment to stare over the small crowd, shielding his eyes from the bright lights and a slashing rain. Mere seconds after Lowery lets loose his Tennessee-whiskey voice into the dreary June evening, a blue Frisbee ejects violently from the restless front-row mob and comes perilously close to whacking Cracker’s lead singer in his scruffy blond melon.

Tonight’s gig—the underwhelming Fairfax Fair earlier this summer—is pretty much a cowflop on Cracker’s perpetual tour schedule, especially for a band that ruled modern-rock radio’s precarious roost just a few years back. (Shouldn’t B.J. Thomas or Peter Tork being playing this type of event?) But as another, and then yet another, soaring disc breaks the precious zone between fan and band, Lowery never harrumphs offstage for the comfort of a cold one. He just looks down at the ridiculous amount of fan-borne debris littering the stage, scratches his head in mock confusion, and shoots a half-smile at guitarist Johnny Hickman.

An assortment of objects—bras, backpacks, glow sticks, fat drops of rain—

will pepper the stage and the group for the remainder of the 90-minute show. Lowery & Co., however, will shrug it off by lightly mocking the teen-dominated crowd and pumping out their jangly, earthy tunes ’til everyone’s properly (if not deservedly) sated.

That subtle little tale is pretty much the point of this Richmond-based collective, a quick, cool, down-to-earth rock band bidding with a brand new album to win back the fans who scattered when Cracker’s last product tanked. And the don’t-care musk swirling around the group makes it all the sweeter that Cracker’s fourth album, the wild-child creation Gentleman’s Blues, is certainly the band’s finest, and one of the best rock albums of 1998.

Think of Lowery as a Southernized Will Hunting: a charming, witty brainiac in redneck’s clothing. Since his days letting loose with on-campus heroes Camper Van Beethoven (“Take the Skinheads Bowling”), Cracker’s main man has been straddling roots rock and nose-ring rebellion with irresistible energy.

On Cracker’s first two albums, Lowery and bandmate Hickman—who affects ’80s-style guitar sneers during his inventive solos—obscured their more avant-garde notions for straight-up, stripped-down rock. Their 1992 release Cracker, though noticeably thin in its second half, was nevertheless a hello-world roustabout; the single “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” busted to the head of that year’s alt-rock class. In 1993, follow-up Kerosene Hat, which rocketed beyond platinum thanks to the megahit “Low” and the encore number “Get Off This” (not to mention the blissfully cultish hidden track “Eurotrash Girl”), was a playful stab at pop perfection, with tasty hooks ringing louder than the outré spins that began to creep into the tunes.

But as Cracker basked in the glow of the Next Big Thing, matters went awry: 1996’s The Golden Age, while containing an ample number of standard guitar burners, was a commercial disaster, not to mention a painful reminder of how fickle today’s young rebel listeners can be. Without enough sugar-coated helpings of hit material, hardly anybody bought the bizarre exotic spices sprinkled throughout its lukewarm broth.

Produced by Don Smith, the same guy who manned the helm for both Cracker and Kerosene Hat, the 16-track Gentleman’s Blues, which shows up in stores Aug. 25, should bring the outcasts back in good standing. Instead of playing it safe—plugging 12 “Low”s into an album is sure to please but not thrill—Lowery and Hickman throw down a badass buffet of grainy Midwestern melodies, swampy blues, and clean, crunchy rock ‘n’ roll—and flavor it with plenty of hooks, sarcasm, and eccentricity.

The album’s opener, “The Good Life,” which is also the first single, is as restrained and radio-minded as Cracker gets. It’s an introspective burner in the spirit of Mellencamp or Petty—the latter inspiration being no coincidence, as Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench play on this track and several others. The song is saved from absolute conservatism by Lowery’s abrasive pipes, which never fail to sound like those of a weekend smoker at Sunday brunch. The Stonesian rumble “Seven Days” completes the album’s one-two kickoff punch; sexed up by the cooing background vocals of September 67’s Kristin Asbury, the song finds Lowery acknowledging the band’s recent commercial unpleasantness and subsequent screw-it-all ‘tude: “So we were standing around fading in and out of fashion/While Amerikids dug Eurobeats,” and later “There ain’t nothing that you got that we don’t need/Did I say that right?”

“The World Is Mine” and “Waiting for You Girl” are classic Cracker songs, complete with breakneck pace, Hickman’s surly, overlapping guitar parts, and plenty of shout-out lyrics, but this time injected with lush ELO harmonizing to caulk the cracks. The up-tempo gems are finely complemented by the stranger, slower tunes: “James River” and “Lullabye” are blurred, dreamy road trips that barely breathe enough air to support their unfastened lyrics and comatose instrumentation. “I Want Out of the Circus” is exactly what the title suggests: Lowery begging out of the Big Top while Hickman’s nimble picking conjures up a mix tape cranking from a slow-moving clown car. The song is creepy, funny, and catchy as hell. (Trust me, you’ll be humming the main guitar line for days.)

As is usually the case with Cracker, you’ll find goodies somewhere after the final track, but I won’t ruin any of the surprises. In fact, all you really need to know about Gentleman’s Blues—and Cracker’s welcome resurgence—can be found above ground.CP

Cracker plays the 9:30 Club Tuesday, Aug. 25.