Congratulations I'm Sorry
Being local heroes in the national spotlight carries its share of burdens, as the mixed-blessings title of Gin Blossoms' second major-label release clearly references. No matter what the GBs do now to advance their career, somebody back home is going to be pissed. A band can reserve six panels for thank-yous on its major debut and still have forgotten everybody who ever lent it a guitar pick or came out to see it on a rainy Monday night.
Gin Blossoms' counterrevolution was typical: First came the fans, who resented the band for not playing a tiny watering hole just around the block every Friday and Saturday. Then came the contingency of local musicians--the sour-grapes brigade, if you will--who resented that it wasn't some other group or sound (theirs, perhaps?) that got the national nod. Pile on all the people who think the Blossoms didn't do right by asking Doug Hopkins--author of the band's first two breakthrough hits--to leave the band and destroy himself somewhere less conspicuous, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone around town who could pen a truly objective critique of the new album.
Hard-pressed, that is, unless you talked to me.
For you see, in my shabby, mortal frame resides a guy who:
a) To date, has never afforded New Miserable Experience an entire listen; doesn't own a copy--Christ, has never even held a copy!
b) Never spotted Doug Hopkins across a crowded bar and bought him a frosty brew.
c) Ne'er laid eyes on Robin Wilson's famed collection of kiddy lunchboxes.
d) Couldn't even tell you which Gin Blossom is supposed to be "the quiet one."
Okay, so those last two items aren't really that important, but it just shows you how truly incorruptible and out of the loop I am. About that first point, though: I moved to Arizona in the spring of '93, just as NME was officially pronounced dead by everyone at A&M, and just before the thing suddenly administered the kiss of life upon itself.
Thrilled that finally, finally! Arizonans had one of their own milling about in the upper regions of the pop charts, aside from that scarf-swishin' Stevie Nicks, it seemed like everyone in Tempe took it upon himself to act as the cultural Chamber of Commerce, badgering me--"you gotta hear this band"--with the same intensity as a school chum begging to copy off you for an end-term exam.
Whether it was a wish to preserve my outsider status, or simply that I was already freaked out by the way all you people were acting about the Phoenix Suns, I kept my distance. And it wasn't easy. By the time New Miserable Experience unhinged its fourth hitsingle, "Allison Road," avoiding the GinBlossoms became more a matter of endurance than aversion.
It was NME's third single, "Until I Fall Away," that finally made me bolt up and take notice of the band--not the two singles prior ("Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You"). The first pair of tunes had its virtues, to be sure--but I have to agree with a friend of mine, who insists it was the line about "letting the cops chase us around" in "Jealousy" that galvanized slackers to get behind the group. (Guess the Refreshments' lyrics in "Banditos" about putting sugar in a cop car's tailpipe mean we're in for plenty o' songs cataloguing zany high jinks with the local po-lice! Hiyaaa!!)
But while "Hey Jealousy" had the lyrical hook to commend it, "Until I Fall Away" actually backed up the truck to the loading dock and dee-dee-dee-dee-delivered the actual pop goods. We're talking gorgeous harmonies and the most overlooked ingredient in the recipe for the GBs' success--Wilson's breathless vocal delivery. When he gets down to it, Wilson delivers like a made-to-order teen idol; an effortless cross between the Raiders' Mark Lindsay and David Cassidy, two underappreciated rock gods who are no slouches with a song.
Recently, the Rocket ran a review of the new Refreshments album that opened with a salvo aimed at Gin Blossoms and Tempe rock in general. Chris Nickson wCR>CR>rites in the Seattle biweekly that "the only Blossom who could write a song topped himself," and calls the GBs "a bar band that got lucky."
But bitter boys who screech that the Blossoms ain't got chops are completely missing the boat--nobody listens to GBs forsearing guitar solos and bloodcurdling screams. It's the harmonies and the pop tunes, maaaan. And, luckily for the boys, both are bobbing in the basket on Congratulations.
Rubbing elbows with neglected pop guru Marshall Crenshaw has done wonders for bringing out the mel-o-dic content that the Blossoms' earlier hits only hinted at. "Follow You Down," the ... er ... umph ... follow-up to "Till I Hear It From You," is a safe-bet first single that shouldn't throw things too far off course. But, for my 2 cents, the real money song on this platter is "As Long As It Matters," a pristine pop ballad with a shimmering, Big Star-y chorus that could've slotted on Radio City with no problem whatsoever.
New wrinkles on this outing include the heavily phased Hammond organ which ushers in "Day Job." That intro might scare off some channel surfers who think they're about to hear Deep Purple charge into "Space Truckin'," but from there it only gets about as heavy as R.E.M.'s "Finest Worksong." Back to your seats, citizens of Tempe, there's no need to cancel your fan-club membership here.
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Chuck Berry used to write songs with an atlas handy, but Wilson must be suffering from severe post-touring amnesia--he doesn't seem to know where in Sam Hill he is throughout half of this album ("Is this home 'cause I forgot" and "Take the long way home/Just enough to get it wrong," are but two of many, many examples). In the March issue of Request, he even goes so far as to say, "There just aren't that many bands here." You heard right--there ain't that many combos in band-riddled Tempe!
Given all that's happened to him in the last three years, who can blame Wilson for turning a blind eye to the local scene? Imagine yourself if you had a mess of folks in yourCR> hoCR>metown (let alone a great many people outside it) sniping behind your back (not to mention vying for your job), and you get some idea of the uneasiness fueling the confessional "Competition Smile." No wonder the boys seem more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings, as on the playful country-honk of "Memphis Time."
That this isn't the winning ugly album it could've been shows Gin Blossoms are maintaining considerable grace under pressure. And, despite any heady uncertainties, they've still managed to turn in an album likable and low-key enough to break my long-earned fast and make me scarf down New Miserable Experience--and that's a near miracle.--Serene Dominic