Up and Rumbling

After five years of fits and starts, Gin Blossoms songwriter/guitarist Jesse Valenzuela finally launches a solo career

Looking back, Valenzuela admits the project was somewhat ill-fated from the start. Burned out after years on the road and tired of the band environment -- and with Johnson and Icard working with Roger Clyne's Peacemakers -- Valenzuela let the group die quietly. "It was a little halfhearted," he says of his involvement with the band. "Ultimately, I decided to move to California to try something else."

Relocating to Los Angeles, Valenzuela began what would be a busy run of session work and songwriting over the next four years -- all the while knowing he had abandoned a promising collection of material.

"When you're a working musician, and if you're busy, you don't worry about things like that," he says. "I just kind of forgot about those songs and started working pretty heavy in production and co-writes."

Jesse Valenzuela: Gracefully sidestepping his imposing history with Tunes Young People Will Enjoy.
Jesse Valenzuela: Gracefully sidestepping his imposing history with Tunes Young People Will Enjoy.


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For several years, Valenzuela remained satisfied with his work, his contentment due in no small part to a new marriage and the birth of a son. Even after returning with his young family to the Valley, Valenzuela still managed to secure a number of prestigious opportunities -- having songs cut by artists as diverse as the Calling and Judy Collins, and getting offers to tour with the likes of Stevie Nicks and Paul Westerberg.

Mostly, though, Valenzuela found himself working with kindred singer-songwriter spirits: Eagles collaborator J.D. Souther, twang-pop tunesmith Bill Lloyd, ex-Plimsoul Peter Case, Odds front man Craig Northey. Working with these various collaborators, Valenzuela would occasionally revisit one of his old songs for a soundtrack or a TV show, meanwhile squirreling away fresh tunes for a project he knew deep in his heart he'd one day tackle.

Finally, in the summer of 2001, Valenzuela decided to dust off those long-forgotten numbers, polish off a few new ones and start his solo career in earnest.

"I'd be in the studio doing demos with people, and I found this group of musicians I really enjoyed playing with," he recalls. "If there was extra time at the end of a session, I'd tip the guys out to stay and we'd cut a track here and there. And that's basically how this album came together."

The gifted pool of musicians Valenzuela gravitated toward was centered on the Los Angeles studio run by engineer/producer Michael Vail Blum (Madonna, Redd Kross, Suicidal Tendencies). Among the players were a versatile cadre of Tinseltown cats boasting an impressive roster of credits.

Along with longtime musical foil Daryl Icard and a smattering of talented guests, Valenzuela gradually pieced together a strong, classically grounded collection of pop songs, brimming with refined melodies and keenly observed ruminations on love and life. With nary a wasted note and a modicum of verbal economy, the 11-song disc admirably apes the elegant reserve of Nick Lowe and the carefully wrought craftsmanship of Marshall Crenshaw, two of Valenzuela's personal faves.

While the richly textured tracks evince Valenzuela's penchant for pop hooks, the material doesn't worship the Byrds-Big Star-R.E.M. trinity that guided the Blossoms' oeuvre.

"There isn't much jangle on any of these songs," insists Valenzuela. "I was trying to make a record that was more John Hiatt or Joe Henry-sounding. Something a little darker maybe."

To that end, the jagged, escapist themes of "Bulletproof Jacket" -- all looped grooves and warped guitar slashes -- achieve just such a somber brilliance, while the bittersweet "Damaged Goods" juggles Valenzuela's passion for sunny harmonies and bittersweet lyrics.

Meanwhile, cuts like the funky, skittering "We Can Still Run" and the Latin-flecked "Andale Pues" champion a rhythmic approach that's far rootsier than anything else in Valenzuela's canon.

"I was always thinking this batch of songs should be more percussive in value," he says. "And I didn't want to have a lot of guitar sound, per se. I wanted the kick drum and the vocal, that's what I was looking for."

Although Valenzuela relied on a contingent of seasoned L.A. studio pros to bring his songs to fruition, surprisingly, the album isn't cursed by any session-band slickness. Guitarist Nick Kirgo's colorful slide work and Herman Jackson's plangent organ smother the songs in bluesy verve, while drummer Gary Mallaber -- a veritable heavy hitter for the likes of Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and the Beach Boys, among others -- guides the beats with typical aplomb; the musical cast giving many of the older songs a fresh, almost repertory airing.

Elsewhere, a pair of album highlights were salvaged from some late-'90s sessions at Memphis' Ardent Studios, teaming Valenzuela and a group of R&B vets -- including Al Green session ace Steve Potts -- with the Blossoms' old sound guru John Hampton.

If any criticism can be leveled at the album, it's that Valenzuela's lyrics sometimes lack a convincing emotional punch, his songs offering a wistful charm rather than intense profundity. Something less weighty than, say, the horn-rimmed fury of an Elvis Costello or the angry young man antics of a Ryan Adams. The coolly detached Valenzuela, for his part, seems uninterested in cultivating a persona of faux angst for the purpose of selling records.

"The pop music I like best is probably a little more understated. I never went for the chest-beating stuff," he observes. "It's not particularly commercial to do that. But it's how I write and how I am. There are some very personal songs on the album, but I don't want to knock people over the head with that."

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