I was looking for Acid Bath, couldn’t find them! Nonetheless, you can’t help but be charmed by the cluster of locals playing the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April (along with Pearl Jam, Neil Young, the Chili Peppers and a staggering lineup of others). Cowboy Mouth are one (“Jenny Says,” “Easy”) and Better than Ezra are another.
I always say you can tell a lot about a band from the first song on their first album, and with Better than Ezra, this is true, even if you think that their first album is the mainstream breakthrough Deluxe, which has approximately as many hit singles as it has songs on it. The whole thing’s enough to make any of us northerners jealous.
There’s an interesting story behind Deluxe (or so I assume, couldn’t exactly FIND THE STORY online anywhere, wikipedia by darned): it was apparently released by some label called Swell Records way back in ’93, the day of Toad the Wet Sprocket, even before the Counting Crows, and then picked up by Elektra in ’95, way before Third Eye Blind. This is interesting, of course, because in such light, BTE comes off as far more ahead of their time than you’d otherwise think. Maybe there was less of a demand for their soulful southern rock contemporaneous with In Utero and Vs.? I don’t think there’s any question. Check’s in the mail, Counting Crows.
Issuing in ’95 to a national level as they did, they catatonically buddied up with Collective Soul and Live, but I’m sure they’re not complaining — just as lead singer Kevin Griffin said, all it took was a G-D-E-C chord progression or whatever. In the liner notes of their best-of, he says something like “Good” was the song that put them over, basically in one fell swoop. But per the first song on the album, their success is “In the Blood” — though it seems so simple, it’s not the type of thing you can fake, and songs like “Rosealia,” dealing with domestic violence, give a glimpse of Griffin’s humanistic muse. Plus, who could have imitated those “Oh-wah-hah!”’s.
There’s a bar here in my town I can go to where they sometimes play “Good,” and another song I’ll habitually hear in there is the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You,” which made it onto the Igby Goes Down soundtrack. Like Better than Ezra, the Warhols have one, single album appearing before the one that made them famous, and something made me recently get it — it’s called Dandys Rule Ok. Yes, it’s clearly marked by the same humility which caused Better than Ezra to proclaim themselves as such, the first song on THEIR first album, Surprise, baptized as “Ezra Pound.” And in each album’s case, I notice two things — one, taking things to excess, with almost nursery-rhyme-like stupidity and repetition, as well as to an extent the failure to even try to be good, although the sound is already there… maybe in each case the songs were still buried in the vault, the band not wanting to launch themselves too far into fame right away?
And I dunno if Deluxe is a classic album, 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia probably stakes slightly more claim toward that honor, but it’s at least as classic as Collective Soul and Throwing Copper, and obviously less swathed is spirituality, more “poetic,” almost. Yes, Kevin Griffin, allow me to placate your ego, lest it wallow into smithereens! “Cry in the Sun” is a languorous bath of mourning for nothing in particular, it seems, other than that great, sprawling opposite of melody Griffin seems to have experienced in his life, the horrors of life’s uncertainty, the prospect of a “price of my freedom.” And then there’s “This Time of Year,” another mid-tempo showstopper which makes me wish J&H were taking place in the fall: “Well there’s a football in the air / Across a leaf blown field.”
But this brings me to my primary point about Better than Ezra: they’ve sort of made a lot of crappy, overly poppy albums in the wake of Deluxe, “Rewind” rips off the guitar riff from Pavement’s “Hands off the Bayou” (though give them props for at least ripping off a Pavement b-side), and Griffin seems to have a one-track mind (not that you can probably blame him). But in a way, this is just fall turning to spring, it’s only natural: they made their bare-bones Americana statement of steel guitar, the sort of organic ’90’s folk rock denizen of the mainstream in the vein of the Wallflowers and Fastball, and there’s no point in trying to repeat that. They’re successful and happy, why try to hide it? As their greatest hits collection will indicate, “Extraordinary” is grotesquely goofy and gleeful, just about spending time with his sweetheart, the type of thing your left brain hates, but which leaves your right brain pawing like a puppy for more. Maybe it’s out of the realm of possibility for us to all live like Kevin Griffin. But I have heard good things about their live shows, and I’m glad now to see that they do still have the bassist they had on Deluxe, Tom Drummond (different drummer) — those guys had not really the best groove ever, but a pretty damned good one, and Griffin’s voice does vie for all time elite.