Monday, April 21, 2014

In Defense Of: Gin Blossoms

This week's In Defense Of was contributed by Chris Buckridge, an Ohio-raised, Brooklyn-based musician, songwriter, and recovering music-video-face maker.

In the mid-90s, I was in my teens, and I was becoming Punk with a capital P. It was around the time of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and I was studying the rips and tears of Johnny Rotten’s jackets, noting which moments in songs prompted Iggy to scratch his stomach, counting safety pins, and, of course, making disparaging remarks about shitty post-Pearl Jam alternative rock bands. One band that got lumped into MTV's Alternative Nation rotation managed to escape my bitter teen ire, and that was the Gin Blossoms.

They had great singles…the rockers were romantic and tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating toe tappers. The slow numbers were the perfect soundtrack to give what my friend Isaac calls “Music Video Face”
you know the one, the song plays and you look meaningfully out of the window of the backseat or diner you’re in in my case it was the backseat, on the long drive home from one of my songster dad’s coffee shop gigs. There I sat, giving perfect MVF, maybe trying to harmonize or do the backing vocals in my shitty little teen voice...

Til I Hear It From You” was featured in Empire Records, a movie which held ZERO interest to me. It was too pop culture alternative for my puritanical tastes, but I always liked the song. Like that video? Fuck no, and nobody should. I’m pretty sure nothing happens in it, maybe some turning, while the band plays for an audience of camera it’s enough to make you second-guess the band. Who are these clowns, hanging out with…who are those other clowns? Are they in the movie? On top of this, the cleanliness of their dare I say, almost adult contemporary? sound and general mainstreamitude made them the butt of many holier-than-thou jokes.

Say what you will about how radio friendly that sound is: they never sank into giant production ordeals or huge-ass reverb, and they didn’t make it on a cover like The Lemonheads or a novelty song like the Flaming Lips. It was original music: classic little rockin’ pop songs, guitars blaring and drums thwacking away with some dude with a halfway decent voice singing witty songs about obsessive thoughts. And then the song’s over.

I remember seeing them on John Stewart’s MTV show somewhere around this time, and they rocked. There were big loud guitars, the bass carried the hook, people were beating on drums, they looked super sloppy: all the right stuff.

I never had the pleasure of seeing them live, but I knew someone who did. My adolescent rock guru was my doctor, a man twenty-five years my senior who insisted on being called “Stinky” when outside of the office. Among the many formative experiences he provided me with were concerts such as the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop. He drunk drove expertly at night with sunglasses on and was an incredible diagnostician during the day. He was confrontational, especially when meeting his idols people like Lou Reed. In short, the man suffered no bullshit but could dish it out. He went to a Gin Blossoms concert and really dug it. He came back having been impressed by their freshly lit cigarettes when they walked on stage. I agreed, that’s kinda badass (you could still think smoking was kind of badass in the 90s…he and I both did it).

Unfortunately, one of their founding members met with an ungracious end, having been fired from the band before seeing the success of “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You,” two songs he penned for 1992's New Miserable Experience. At the risk of sounding insensitive, that is rock and roll gold. They had their Syd Barrett/Chris Bell/Skip Spence figure – interesting lore for rock enthusiasts. Something to read about in Rolling Stone. Then over the years, I heard stories of people going to Gin Blossoms shows where the bassist would leave the stage in a huff, and the lead singer would end up playing bass. Fighting on stage… again, kinda badass in an unfortunate way. This perky little fluff band had some juicy dark streak going there. Smokin’ fighting sadifying dudes making Empire Records music.

Notice I haven’t brought up any album tracks: just the singles. Honestly, I don’t remember the album tracks. They’re not the kind of band you bother going to for the deep cuts, and that’s fine, neither was Cheap Trick or Thin Lizzy a lot of the time. I’m sure those songs were...y’know…fine, but the singles really shone.

If this sounds rehearsed, I’ll let you guess why. It’s been about twenty years that I’ve been having this conversation, and those hits have aged really well. Somewhere along the line, I came to a startling revelation: the Gin Blossoms were better than, or at least as good, as the worst Replacements. Let that sink in.

I’m looking at you, Don’t Tell A Soul and All Shook Down. Sure, there’s a couple of gems on there (though nowhere near as immediate or just plain awesome as previous ones), maybe about as many as the two bigger Gin Blossoms records (they’ve done five so far: the platinum-selling New Miserable Experience and 1996's Congratulations, I’m Sorry were their second and third, respectively). I will not, however, stand idly while some theoretical indie Ikea-couch professor tries to sell me on “Talent Show” being better than “Hey Jealousy”; “Merry Go Round” being better than “Til I Hear It From You”; “When It Began” being better than “Follow You Down”; “I’ll Be You” being better than “Allison Road.” I’m not buying it: the late Replacements tracks sound phoned in by comparison, causing their trademark carefree performance to patina. If you’re singing and playing like you don’t care, and the song’s a B+ (which is still good!), your usual charming shenanigans ain’t gonna carry it. 

These days, when I find myself listening to Pandora, the stations I gravitate toward do tend to kick up those late-period Replacements numbers, and I can’t just think, “Oh, cool, the Replacements came on, let’s boogie to ‘I’ll Be You...’”
I always sigh and wish I could hear the Gin Blossoms instead. At least they rocked.

1 comment:

  1. Nice take on a band that brings back a lot of positive 90's memories for me. They played a small venue in Hawaii over New Year's in 1993...I still kick myself for not going.