From Beyond The Back Burner
Atomic Pop Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/19/2000
I don't think I've ever written a review with more sharply mixed feelings than this one. On one level, I wanted very much to love this album... and on another, I wanted very much to hate it. In the end, well - you'll see.
A little background: if I could choose one band from the bad old '90s that was gone way too soon, it would be Tempe, Arizona's Gin Blossoms. Powered by a juicy twin-guitar attack that blasted out one brilliant rock and roll hook after another, the Blossoms combined the Byrds' melodic genius and the Who's fiery energy with, oddly enough, REM's sense of melancholy. Their matter-of-fact melding of upbeat music with downbeat lyrics created a series of curiously infectious singles, including "Hey Jealousy" and "Follow You Down," that helped them sell five million copies of 1992's New Miserable Experience and its 1996 follow-up Congratulations I'm Sorry.
Naturally, their next move was to break up.
I have tried not to take this personally, even while continuing to follow the band members' post-Blossoms activities (and, frankly, hoping for a miracle). The Gas Giants feature Blossoms alumni Robin Wilson (lead vocals and a mean tambourine), Philip Rhodes (one of today's most under-appreciated rock drummers), and guitarist Dan Henzerling, who never recorded with the Blossoms but played drums in one early band lineup. Tempe pal G. Brian Scott played bass in the studio but left between this album's March-April '98 recording for ill-fated A&M Records and its eventual late '99 release on indie label Atomic Pop.
The Gas Giants are clearly fighting hard not to be perceived as "Gin Blossoms, Part II," and you have to respect that. As Robin Wilson has spent two years pointing out to anyone holding a microphone in his direction, the Gas Giants -- much of the time -- have a harder edge than the Blossoms, with Henzerling's guitar looming very large in the band's stripped-down sound. The opening "Now The Change" goes about setting the tone very purposefully, repeatedly hammering a beefy, memorable riff home under a lyric whose title says it all -- this is a whole new ball game; kindly check your expectations at the door. In quick succession come "I Hope My Kids Like Marilyn Manson," a cut with all the twisted attitude and cynical humor its title suggests, and the intense "In Between Two Worlds," carrying a hard rock punch that Wilson leavens with his urgent, yet plaintive vocals.
Both of the latter tracks feature one of the most unique elements the Blossoms threw in their mix -- Wilson's tambourine. Not exactly the favorite of instrument of most guitar bands, in Wilson's hands it fills out the rhythm track very effectively and sits pretty under the harmony vocals whenever they come along to lighten things up, as in the closing stanzas of "Two Worlds."
The very heavy "Stinking Up The Charts" takes us even deeper into the hard rock jungle with a darkly funny industry critique that's musically a lot closer to Deep Purple than the Byrds. The contrasting, lighter "Whose Side Are You On" offers some nicely coiled-and-layered vocals before somewhat ruining the effect at the end by lifting a chunka-chunka guitar riff right out of "American Woman." It's cute to steal from classics, I know, but it's one juxtaposition that doesn't really work for me. On the other hand, the subsequent "Circus Of Stars" might be the album's high point, combining an opening and closing new wave/power-pop assault with several sharp tempo shifts and some of Wilson's most cheekily sardonic lyrics.
Around the halfway mark of this 13-track-plus album, though, is where things get vaguely frustrating for a Blossoms fan like me.
For example: in an interview last year, Wilson referred to "Letter" to as "the only gooey mid-tempo Gin Blossoms-like song on the record." His statement is true enough in terms of the song sounding like a lost Blossoms cut, but his statement is wrong on two counts. For one thing, most of this disc's "Going Down" and "Tonight Won't Let Me Wander" are just as "gooey" and "mid-tempo" as either "Letter" or anything on Congratulations, I'm Sorry. (Some of us call this musical characteristic "melody." As in, the thing that makes us want to hear songs more than once.)
For another thing, the Gas Giants' first single "Quitter" is also a dead ringer for the Blossoms. "I can't help it, I'm a quitter, from inside I'm cold and bitter" over a bouncy guitar hook, strong harmonies, the tambourine underneath, sharp drum fills and a melodic closing solo... I mean, give me a break. No criticism of the song, of course -- it's a great sound, and a very good song. Just, please, Robin Wilson, spare us the fiction that it's so "different." (For crying out loud, you even brought in John Hampton, producer of both Blossoms albums!) Instead, you might try explaining to Blossoms fans why you keep tossing little digs at the best band you may ever be in -- while continuing to play "Allison Road" and other Blossoms tracks at Gas Giants gigs.
Therein lies the cusp of my dilemma. I wanted to love this album, because its pedigree practically demands that I do. And I wanted to hate it, because Robin Wilson's approach to promoting it has been so needlessly negative toward the band that gave him a career in music.
In the end, I did neither. It's a pretty good album from a potentially very good band. Strong playing, clever lyrics, lots of energy and some sweet melodies here and there. Not a classic by any means, but a decent start that shows considerable promise for the future. It might even be as good as, say... early Gin Blossoms.