Class Of '98

Eric Hutchinson

Let's Break Records, 2020

http://www.erichutchinson.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/16/2020

Almost Famous is my favorite movie of all time, and it’s not close.

The above feels like a necessary prologue to a review of an album that personifies the genre of rock nostalgia—not a musical genre so much as a cultural one that harnesses the power of music to carry us back in time to the formative moments of our lives. A song, attached to a memory, has a way of transforming us into (for example) our 17-year-old selves in a split second.

As for Eric Hutchinson, a bit of backstory before we get to it. The singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist made his name initially as a sort of early-oughts cautionary tale when his 2004 debut album for Madonna’s Maverick Records ended up trapped in legal limbo for two years when the label collapsed. His second launch attempt, the self-released 2008 album Sounds Like This, met an equally fluky fate when it happened to catch the attention of celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. A single mention on Hilton’s blog landed Hutchinson major buzz, and the album and hit single “Rock & Roll” ended up establishing him as a folk-pop / power-pop act in the vein of Jason Mraz or Matt Nathanson, with a falsetto that reminds of George Michael. We’re talking uber-catchy acoustic guitar- and/or piano-based tunes with undertones of winking humor and sincere appeal.

Many television appearances, soundtrack placements, and four studio albums later, Hutchinson is a pushing-40 husband and father suddenly looking backward. Repeated bouts of daydreaming about high school days put him back in touch with his teenaged self and inspired this somewhat unlikely album: a collection of fresh originals made in the style of his high school musical heroes, anthemic alt-rock and punk-pop acts like Weezer, Green Day, and Oasis. With former Soul Asylum guitarist Justin Sharbono providing that distinctively chunky ’90s guitar sound and Paul Kolderie (Radiohead, Hole, Pixies) delivering an era-appropriate mix, Class Of ’98 offers a blast of riff-heavy nostalgia that’s a hard left turn musically for the heretofore light-and-earnest Hutchinson.

The real surprise, though, is just how well it works. In fact, for this power-pop lover, this feels like the strongest album of Hutchinson’s considerable career, channeling his sharp melodic instincts in a guitar-heavy direction that’s at least as appealing as his typical acoustic fare. What takes it to the next level, though, is the lyrics, where Hutchinson taps into the anxieties and obsessions of high school like it all happened yesterday, inhabiting his past self thoroughly, but with the benefit of two decades of hard-won knowledge. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Opener “Rock Out Tonight” finds a lonely, slightly desperate suburban teenager trying to charm his crush with an offer to “pick you up in my Ford Taurus” as its fat riffing and delightfully cheesy Cars-adjacent synths inspire visions of Fountains Of Wayne. Lead single “Cooler Than You,” in which a music nerd fantasizes about one day triumphing over his high school bullies, has a lyrical edge and aggressive arrangement that suggests it’s particularly autobiographical. “And while you’re smoking all your cigarettes / And you’re driving in your mom’s new car / I haven’t really found my rhythm yet, But I’ll keep playing my guitar…”

Building on that powerful one-two punch up front, Hutchinson delves into the meat and potatoes of teenaged existence: the swirling emotions around family life (sweet, driving “My Old Man”), unrequited romantic longing (hard-soft power ballad “Ann Marie”), lustful impatience (chunky-riffed thumper “Good Things Come”), and the elemental satisfaction of rocking out (bluesy vamp “Sweet Little Baby Rock’n’Roller”).

The final four tracks—a graveyard of filler on many albums—are as strong as anything here. Ringing, authoritative anthem to apathy “If They Don’t Care (We Don’t Either)” inspires visions of a high-school parking lot singalong on its way to a jamming, screaming finish (“Why should we try / Doesn’t matter if we laugh or cry / Too late to surrender what we always knew / Adults are so bizarre / Don’t care about who we are / And if they don’t care, we don’t either”). From there Hutchinson dives headlong into the virtual Fountains Of Wayne homage “Drunk At Lunch”—complete with chunka-chunka “Stacy’s Mom” rhythm guitar—which ultimately feels like nothing so much as a giddy prequel to FOW’s “Bright Future In Sales.”

Batting ninth, “Lovely Lori” is a minor masterpiece, a ballad of deep romantic longing for the narrator’s latest crush Lori… that quickly moves on to worshipping Jamie… and Melissa… and Stephanie… and Nicole… and so on. It’s sweet and hilarious and perfectly captures the adolescent male’s absolute devotion to the object of his affections, at least until the next one walks by. Hutchinson’s retro memory play reaches a climax with hard-rocking closer “Whether I Like It Or Not,” whose propulsive verses crash hard into its punky chorus, a tale of a couple who start out as “familiar frenemies who make each other miserable” but end up inseparable.

The fat, crunchy sound and sometimes snarky lyrics of Class of ’98 may startle devotees of Hutchinson’s typically clean and sincere acoustic pop, but he’s always had a sense of humor, and like a good method actor, he inhabits the role he’s playing here completely. Nostalgia can be a shallow exercise when done for its own sake, but Hutchinson is both sympathetic toward his younger self, and a witty and insightful commentator on the frenzied weirdness of adolescence and the high-school scene. Class Of ’98 is a head trip well worth taking, flashbacks and all.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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