Hey Anthology

The Gin Blossoms bloom again with a greatest-hits collection, a reunion show and talk of a new album

When Outside Looking In: The Best of the Gin Blossoms hits stores on October 19, the first question on the lips of most people will be, "Why?"

Why would a band that broke up less than three years ago and with only two albums (and one EP) to its credit release a greatest-hits package? The short answer -- like everything else relating to the music industry -- is money. But the real story behind this strange turn is something a bit more elaborate and equally bizarre.

As a result of this year's industry-changing Seagram's-PolyGram merger, the newly formed Universal Music Group in turn formed a new entity, Universal Music Enterprises, devoted exclusively to exhuming catalogue material. Since its formation, UME has been plundering its vaults and those of its newly acquired labels for material to be repackaged, reissued and resurrected. In fact, the Gin Blossoms collection (slotted somewhere in between a Marvin Gaye greatest hits and a pair of Go-Go's reissues) is just one of several hundred planned retrospectives slated for the next few months.

Just south of nowhere: The jeans and flannel Blossoms in their late '80s heyday. From left, Phillip Rhodes, Jesse Valenzuela, Robin Wilson, Bill Leen, Doug Hopkins.
courtesy of Sara Cina
Just south of nowhere: The jeans and flannel Blossoms in their late '80s heyday. From left, Phillip Rhodes, Jesse Valenzuela, Robin Wilson, Bill Leen, Doug Hopkins.

For a band that's still relatively fresh in the public consciousness and whose members are still active and viable performers, being anthologized so soon must feel kind of odd, right? Well, none of the former Gin Blossoms were able to shed much light on that -- initially, at least -- as none of the band members or their management were aware of the plans for the greatest-hits collection until New Times contacted them about this article. In fact, former Blossoms co-manager Mick Brigden of Bill Graham Management (who currently represents singer Robin Wilson's post-Blossoms outfit Gas Giants) was told by an unidentified Universal rep that the album was in fact not coming out. This was an especially curious development considering New Times was given a full track list, description of photos, and a preview of the liner notes. While the bit of misinformation given to Brigden may not have been deliberate, such shabby deceptions are characteristic of most major-label business dealings. However, Universal's position in this particular matter was at least somewhat understandable -- although based on erroneous information.

The overriding purpose behind a project like the Blossoms' "best of" (or any similar repackaging effort) is to turn around existing product with an eye toward maximum efficiency and profit minus the hassle of dealing with the "creative element" behind the music. As a result, Universal's project team -- which was clearly under the false impression that relations between the band members were especially strained and fractious (they are not) -- thought they would be avoiding some unnecessary headaches by not contacting the group or its representatives until the project was a fait accompli.

Certainly the label was within its rights to do so, as Universal owns the masters and all related rights to the band's A&M catalogue. However, the apparent lack of consideration was taken as an insult and set off a flurry of angry phone calls from Blossoms management to those handling the project at UME. Ultimately, though, all parties were satisfied, or at least quieted after they were given a preview of the finished product.

Supervised by Andy Mackie, UME's senior vice president of A&R, the hands-on work for Outside Looking In was done by UME's A&R director Mike Ragogna, a reissue vet who has supervised boxed sets and retrospectives for artists including the Shirelles, Jim Croce and Harry Chapin. An avowed fan of the band, Ragogna elected to work on the project specifically, and his efforts were not in vain. Although it's certainly not flawless, the packaging for Outside Looking In has clearly been labored over and includes specially commissioned cover art, extensive liner and recording notes and dozens of rare or never-before-published photographs.

As for the track listing for the 14-song disc, the album includes all the group's singles, versions of "Mrs. Rita" and "Allison Road" from the band's 1992 EP Up & Crumbling, and several other selections.

A number of New Miserable Experience tracks like Jesse Valenzuela's "29" and Wilson's "Hands Are Tied" were considered but ultimately failed to make the cut. The same for "Idiot Summer" -- a song that Wilson and his reps made a last-minute appeal to be included on the collection. Written by Wilson and recorded for the Blossoms' 1989 San Jacinto debut Dusted, the song was altered slightly and credited as a band composition when it was rerecorded for the Wayne's World 2 soundtrack. Unfortunately, the song was passed over in favor of later -- and arguably lesser -- album tracks like "Not Only Numb" and "As Long As It Matters."

The only obvious non-album inclusion for the Blossoms best-of was "Till I Hear It From You," the radio hit penned by Valenzuela and power-pop tunesmith Marshall Crenshaw for the Empire Records soundtrack. The song was left off the band's sophomore record Congratulations, I'm Sorry -- an omission that undoubtedly hurt the album's sales and probably cost it the coveted platinum status upon its initial release (the album has since passed the one million mark in sales).

Outside Looking In's only real rarity as such is a live recording of the Bill Leen/Wilson number "Whitewash," a studio track on Congratulations, I'm Sorry. The version of the song as it appears on the compilation was taken from the "As Long As It Matters" maxi-single and recorded during a March 1996 performance at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University.

The lack of rare selections is the most disappointing aspect of the anthology, especially given the availability of a large number of unreleased tracks ("Blue Eyes Bleeding," "What"), European B-sides ("Soul Deep," "Heartaway"), and other oddities found on various tributes and compilations ("Christine Sixteen" from the 1994 KISS tribute album Kiss My Ass, or the Blossoms' version of "Back of a Car" from Ignition Records' still-unreleased Big Star salute).

To its credit, however, Universal's project team did include "Pieces of the Night," a song from New Miserable Experience authored by the late Doug Hopkins and arguably one of the most beautiful songs in the guitarist's vast catalogue. According to Ragogna, the idea of releasing "Pieces of the Night" to radio as a single was floated initially, although plans to do so were later scrapped.

Although the "best of" effectively cannibalizes all three of the band's records, Universal representatives say they have no plans to alter or delete any of the Blossoms back catalogue. UME's Andy McKaie feels the greatest-hits collection may actually boost the group's overall sales.

"A lot of people buy hits collections to begin with. They'll pick up an album and not see one of the big songs they really want and just put it down. And this gives those kind of people the opportunity to take a shot at the Gin Blossoms," says McKaie. "I've always found hits collections tend to, especially initially, boost the catalogue. And if the music in the catalogue is strong enough, then it lasts."

How the record will fare is anyone's guess. Thanks in large part to continued airplay, the Blossoms' catalogue has continued to shift a respectable number of units annually. With a good spot on the fall release calendar, a fairly comprehensive and attractive package, and ample distribution and label support, the record has a legitimate chance to do better than respectable business in both the short and long term.

The Blossoms' best-of also comes hot on the heels of some unrelated news: the announcement of a New Year's Eve reunion show. A noon press conference has been scheduled for September 22 at downtown's Patriots Square park to officially announce the millennium concert extravaganza called Phoenix 2000 and to confirm a bill that includes the Gin Blossoms and fellow Tempe bands the Peacemakers, Gas Giants, and Pistoleros.

Organizers for the event originally approached Valenzuela's management with the idea of reuniting the group in one-off fashion for the New Year's celebration. Wilson and drummer Phillip Rhodes (also a member of the Gas Giants) signed on immediately -- encouraged, no doubt, by a reported six-figure payday for the performance.

Valenzuela has spent the past year keeping busy as a Los Angeles-based songwriter. That will change when he and his wife, who are expecting their first child, move back to the Valley this fall. Valenzuela's post-Blossoms project, the Low Watts (which featured bassist Darryl Icard, drummer Winston Watson, and former Blossom bandmate Scott Johnson on guitar), suffered a seemingly fatal blow when the group was given its walking papers by A&M during the housecleaning that followed the Seagram's-PolyGram merger. With more than an album of Low Watts material already written and demoed, Valenzuela says he may revive the project in one form or another when he returns to Phoenix. Most recently, Valenzuela collaborated on a collection of songs with singer/songwriter Craig Northey, formerly of Canadian pop-rockers the Odds (who, ironically enough, have their own best-of, Single Slices, coming out on November 2). Valenzuela says he and Northey (backed by members of the Odds) have finished recording nine cuts with plans to complete more for a prospective album which will likely be released independently in Canada.

Although details have been worked out for several weeks, a pair of key sticking points have held up an official confirmation of the show -- specifically the participation of guitarist Scott Johnson and bassist Bill Leen.

For legal purposes, the group needs only three members to bill itself as the Gin Blossoms. With Wilson, Rhodes and Valenzuela already confirmed, the event organizers could have technically billed it as such, but all those involved knew that anything less than a full-scale reunion would be a disappointment and a disservice to the band's reputation.

Johnson's participation was secured when his current group, the Peacemakers (Roger Clyne's post-Refreshments combo), was also guaranteed a spot on the December 31 bill. Leen's involvement was a different matter. Since the Blossoms' breakup, Leen has been the most reclusive of the group, staying as far away as possible from the shadow of the music industry. Living quietly in Mesa, the lanky bassist has divided his time between his family and work as a rare-book dealer. Leen is rightfully considered the heart and soul of the group and the last link to pre-Blossoms progenitors like the Moral Majority, Psalms and Ten O'clock Scholars. Although he was reluctant initially, Leen acquiesced, knowing his presence would be critical in lending the reunion a genuine sense of credibility.

Beyond the compilation and reunion show, the flurry of Blossoms-related activity has opened the door to the very real possibility that the group may record another album together. Rumors even have certain members proposing a five-way publishing split as a means to induce a full-scale resumption of the band's career. Industry sources also indicate that the group and its proven commercial track record would be a welcome addition to any number of major-label rosters. However, any such projects will have to wait -- both Johnson's group, the Peacemakers, and Wilson's band, the Gas Giants, have albums scheduled for mid-October releases with inevitable support tours to follow.

A greater stumbling block to a permanent Blossoms reunion are the potential personality conflicts. Few if any of the issues that ended the group in the first place have been completely resolved. And for Leen, ever the punk purist, any appearance that the band would be restarting simply to "cash in" is fairly abhorrent. Still, things that once seemed unthinkable for the Blossoms are now coming to pass and for good reason.

Why group members have warmed up to the prospect of resuming after what was a fairly rancorous -- albeit anticlimactic -- breakup is fairly simple: The strongest commercial leverage that Valenzuela and Wilson have for their solo careers/side projects is their membership in the Gin Blossoms. The unfortunate turn of events that followed the demise of A&M only served to highlight the fact that the real trump card both men hold is their status as members of a multimillion-selling group. Without it, and despite their considerable talent as artists, they're not unlike the hundreds of other musicians struggling to find their commercial niche and that much-needed label support.

If it now seems possible and even likely that the Blossoms will resume at some point, then the only lingering question that remains is the same one that dogged the band before it recorded the follow-up to New Miserable Experience: Will they ever record any of Doug Hopkins' songs? A trove of Hopkins material -- much of it earmarked for the Gin Blossoms (or, more specifically, Robin Wilson's voice) -- has gone unrecorded, shortchanging Hopkins' creative legacy and robbing Blossoms fans the opportunity to hear such stellar songcraft. Whether the group will remedy that situation still remains uncertain, but it seems more likely than ever that the question may ultimately be answered.

Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: bmehr@newtimes.com

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