New Miserable Experience
The best thing about the Gin Blossoms' new CD isn't the potent love songs or the teary beer tunes or even the pop guitars and vocals that come off like an alternative stepchild of the Hollies.
No, the best thing about New Miserable Experience is the fact that Tempe's favorite pop band succeeds in combining the aforementioned elements into a solid, near-seamless debut.
As such, New Miserable Experience easily ranks as one of the best rock recordings of the year.
It may well be the best rock n' pop CD to ever come out of Phoenix.
Proof is as easy to find as the words and music on the opening cut, "Lost Horizons": "Drink enough of anything/To make myself look new again," sings Robin Wilson with an appropriately plaintive air. Moments later, between waves of chiming guitars, Wilson croons almost offhandedly, "She had nothing left to say/So she said she loved me." The bleary lyrics and the overall sense of resignation immediately set the tone for the socko songs that follow.
Indeed, the CD's subsequent entries consistently play touch-and-go with bliss. The nicely crafted songs serve up heady, barstool truths alongside instantly attractive melodies. "Hey, Jealousy" opens with a sturdy guitar intro that helps focus songwriter Doug Hopkins' hopelessly messed-up mode of living: "Do you think it'd be all right/If I could just crash here tonight/You can see I'm in no shape for driving/Anyway, I've got no place to go."
A similar mix of pathos and pop smarts is evident on "Hold Me Down," a dead-on depiction of a lonely drunk "reaching for the exit from the ground." Even better is the entirely wonderful "Found Out About You," which rivals any song ever sung about adolescent love gone bad: "Whispers at the bus stop," Wilson sings earnestly, "I heard about nights out at the schoolyard/I found out about you."
Producer John Hampton and the recording crew at Ardent Studios in Memphis deserve honorary Blossoms status for shaping the band's sound into such a firm, competent form. Most evident is a steady overdub of guitar action by both Hopkins and singer-guitarist Jesse Valenzuela. Hampton also gets good results with Wilson's lead vocals. The same goes for the rhythm section--bassist Bill Leen and drummer Phillip Rhodes--which comes out of the CD's breaks and bridges with a healthy show of confidence.
But there's a problem with New Miserable Experience.
The CD's brilliance is tinged with a curious disequilibrium. It's obvious to anyone who reads the recording's liner notes and credits. Hopkins, the chief songwriter on the disc, is quietly labeled as "musician" and not as a full-fledged Gin Blossom. That's because he isn't a Gin Blossom anymore.
And that's the problem.
Hopkins' tortured history with the band he co-founded is common knowledge among Blossom watchers. What matters now is where the Blossoms go from here. The move replacing Hopkins with former Feedbags guitarist Scott Johnson points the band in a different and relatively uncharted direction. Softer New Miserable Experience songs like "29," written by Valenzuela, and "Until I Fall Away," co-written by Valenzuela and Wilson, now look to be the future Gin Blossoms' sound. It's a future that will likely confuse longtime Blossom fans, not to mention more recent converts attracted by the harder Hopkins' touch.
The renovated Gin Blossoms may never capture the excitement the old lineup took for granted. And New Miserable Experience may well be looked back on as an exception rather than a norm. This could be the best CD the Gin Blossoms ever make. But don't count the "new" band out quite yet. Valenzuela, especially, is a proven pop craftsman with a promising rsum.
Indeed, even with the recent roster crisis, the band seems to be on a roll. New Miserable Experience is getting plenty of airplay on a variety of radio formats, and the band's current tour is by most accounts a success. The Blossoms are being buzzed as one of the most promising new groups in rock music. And yet New Miserable Experience includes disquieting moments for longtime fans who see the Blossoms as a sum greater than their parts. One of those moments hits home on "Hold Me Down," an obvious Hopkins song and one of the CD's best cuts. Wilson, waiting for the smoke to clear from the explosive and rather blatant McCartney/Wings/Jet" intro, sings of being "in the company of strangers/Or just strangers you call friends."
It's a great line. It's an honest line. And it's a line that now makes you wonder what will become of a band long considered one of the best friends the Tempe scene's ever had.
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