I’ve written in a different venue that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Nostalgia, on its own, can be sublime, recalling once youthful and innocent memories that remind us of a time that can never be again. The danger comes when people try to recapture that feeling, attempting to recreate something that should have been left well enough alone. Hollywood has seemingly made fortunes exploiting that sense of nostalgia, making movies from ’80s cartoons, toys and television action shows while resurrecting film franchises that went one chapter too far. I went to college in the early ’90s. Thus, I came of age at an exciting time in popular music. Grunge was wiping out the last remnants of hair metal. Hip-hop was expanding in directions theretofore unseen, continually proving it wasn’t just a fad. But, as with every generation, there was also fairly bland popular rock.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with popular music. Back then, aside from liking everything from Public Enemy to Fugazi, I also enjoyed Lenny Kravitz, Blind Melon and Semisonic. I was a musical omnivore. I will not revise history. Yes, I owned a cassette single of Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Yes, I knew every line in the extended version of the Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You.” And yes, I dug the Toadies. But why are some artifacts from the past seen in such a colored light, while others seem to stand the test of time? After all, I also saw Radiohead open up for P.J. Harvey during that time, and both of those acts still retain an incredibly high cool factor. So, why not Sponge? Why not Dishwalla? Why not Live? And why not Better Than Ezra?
Most of us out there probably didn’t even realize that Better Than Ezra were still a viable entity. It’s been four years since New Orleans’ own BTE released an album, and it’s only their sixth in 14 years. But, while you can’t call the band prolific, you can at least respect their tenacity, longevity and business acumen. They’ve written songs for other acclaimed artists while limiting their own output, and they’ve had songs placed in television shows and commercials, making at least enough money to release Paper Empire on their own label. They’ve also established their own charity, the Better Than Ezra Foundation, to help rebuild their hometown.
I was an admirer of BTE’s music starting with their hit single “Good” and all the way up until 1998’s “One More Murder,” featured on both their third album and the soundtrack for the first X-Files movie. How’s that for nostalgia? When I saw that the latest album from this trio was up for grabs to review, I was swept up by that sense of nostalgia, and found that recapturing those feelings of youth were more difficult than I expected. Opening tracks “Absolutely Still” and “Turn Up the Bright Lights” are essentially plucked from those heady MOR days of the mid-’90s, with Kevin Griffin’s falsetto seemingly unchanged over the last decade and a half. It isn’t really until “Loveless” that the band hits any kind of new high note, finds any kind of stride, or gives in to any kind of dramatic license. The strings sweep while Griffin’s lyrics and cadence are pure classic rock and roll. Then the gospel chorus kicks in and the song becomes sublime. Maybe there’s just something about things called “Loveless.”
Of course, after that one singular great song ends is when things go to shit. “All In” is a hideous mistake, sounding like a Hillary Duff or Hannah Montana track or even the cringe worthy theme to Psych. I have a tendency to tire of songs after repeated listens, but I grew weary of “All In” after a mere 45 seconds. “Fit” doesn’t make things much better, but at least it doesn’t get much worse. But that’s where “Hell No!” comes in. True, the use of auto-tuning is most likely ironic, but it just sounds awkwardly anachronistic, like an old vaudevillian comedian making jokes about Twitter. It just doesn’t work. “Nightclubbing” is another misstep. They would have done better if they just covered the Iggy Pop tune of the same name, but instead they mimic modern throwaway synth acts like MGMT, but I didn’t even like them the first time around.
And by then the damage is done. There are three more songs on the album, but after an opening salvo that is merely an echo of a long forgotten time, and a subsequent set of songs that make me wonder about their motivations, there was simply no need to continue. I was excited to revive my interest in one of my old favorites, only to find that they should have been marked `Do Not Resuscitate.’ Well, Better Than Ezra, it was good livin’ with you, Owhn-how.
Howie Day – Stop All the World Now
Semisonic – All About Chemistry
Deep Blue Something – Home