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Fifteen years after the group's first album, the Goo Goo Dolls name is still good for the occasional line drawn in the dirt. Quite a few haven't yet forgiven the GGDs for wearing their Replacements jones on their sleeve all the way to multiplatinum status, while Let It Be and Pleased to Meet Me will probably go gold after Paul Westerberg really is a grandpaboy.
And how hard was it to hear John Rzeznik sing "a tired song keeps playing on a tired radio" on the breakthrough hit "Name" and not think of the Goo Goo Dolls' power-ballad follow-up, "Iris"? Oxygen was easier to escape than that omnipresent song, which amazingly was never released as a single but scored massive amounts of airplay. Featured in the Meg Ryan chick-flick City of Angels, the Goo Goos almost became a chick-rock band by association. Suddenly, these former punks were on every lite-rock station in heavy rotation.
There's every indication that the Goo Goo Dolls were just as tired of their new repute as alternative balladeers. The group took five months off just to put some distance between its old songs and the new ones it was obligated to write. In the interim, the band released a compilation, What I Learned About Ego, Opinion, Art & Commerce, that lacked all the hits but included remixes of the band's misses, including "We Are the Normal," which Paul Westerberg himself co-wrote for the 1993 album Superstar Car Wash.
Still, all the Goo Goo Dolls learned about art and commerce was that, without the hits, only a measly 49,000 units were shifted.
"That was originally set up to be a European-only release to introduce people to the fact that we weren't Three Doors Down," says Robby Takac, the Goo Goo Dolls' bassist and other singer-songwriter. "Not bagging on Three Doors Down. Just saying we're not a brand-new band or a bunch of kids."
That should be apparent by Takac's Robitussin croak. "I don't sound like Barry White when I talk for nothing. I've played in every smoky nightclub on Earth," he says, laughing. "We've been making records for many, many years and we wanted people to walk down that path when we made that Ego, Opinion, Art & Commerce. Which is a very high-minded idea, and, as always, high-minded translates into didn't sell too much.' But it was a really energizing experience to make that record. 'Cause we got to relive some of the piss and vinegar that we had a few years ago and we sort of longed for that after hearing all those remixes. Gutterflower is a noticeably heavier record because of that."
"You're always trying to drag people from one record to the next," he continues, "and I guess the best way to do that is to fool them into thinking you're getting the same thing." He says this as he muses over having a stack of reviews that intimate that they've made the same record again.
While the girl on the sleeve of Gutterflower is cradling a rose in the same position that A Boy Named Goo's minder is holding up nothing, the new album offers some welcome surprises for people expecting an empty-handed sound-alike of their 1998 album Dizzy Up the Girl. The first single, "Here Is Gone," provided the album with its requisite Rzeznik heart-on-the-sleeve ballad, but the difference is that the string section has been given the night off, and an army of guitars provides a mighty drone in its stead. Also, the grunge-meets-sheen of "What Do You Need" and the album's brisk and doomy finale "Truth Is a Whisper" bring an element of danger and foreboding that was missing from the usual Goo Goo fare.
Recorded in the basement of the famous Capitol Tower where Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole recorded all their best records, Gutterflower was a shrewd sculpting job of old microphones, preamps, EQs, tube compressors and vintage Marshall and Orange amplifiers with digital recording.
"We could go do a lo-fi record, but I don't think that would be advantageous to everyone, so we try to make records that sound good," says Takac. "What we were looking for was getting the sound as warm and analog as possible prior to getting it to the hard drive the warmth I used to hear on records when I was a kid. I think the record sounds pretty analog without sounding antiquated next to stuff on the radio now."
Maybe it's the beautiful old tube microphones or else it's having two hit albums under your belt, but Rzeznik sounds more confident that his melodies are all his own. And rather than obscure Takac's lovably lived-in voice with overdubs and filters, as was done on A Boy Named Goo, every piece of flesh hanging from the back of Takac's throat is way up in the mix now.
One holdover from Dizzy Up the Girl is the practice of individual songwriting credits, which couldn't make Takac's accountant very happy. He occupies a third of the new album, his been-there-done-that revisits to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street providing the chipper contrast to Rzeznik's post-divorce ruminations. Forget the hit singles only the albums tell the real Goo Goo Dolls story of two lifelong friends. It's easy to imagine Rzeznik as the lovesick straight-A student who forgets to study for his tests while Takac is the C student with all the answers scribbled on his arm. With Rzeznik the recognized Goo Goo Dolls voice, Takac's radio-friendly contributions like "You Never Know" and "Up Up Up" stand little chance of snagging any ASCAP "most-played" awards.