Tunes Young People Will Enjoy

Jesse Valenzuela

Gabriel Records, 2002

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/03/2002

The great bands are all about synergy. The Beatles, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac… the list goes on and on, but the equation is similar each time -- the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. McCartney, Jagger, Buckingham -- these are great musicians and great songwriters, and every one of them fares better in the context of their bandmates than alone.

The Gin Blossoms didn't stay at the top nearly long enough to make it into that class, but they're a band that produced an amazingly strong body of music in just a few years before breaking up prematurely in 1997. In my mind, their reunion is some of the best rock and roll news heard this year, regardless of worthy solo efforts like Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela's recent Tunes Young People Will Enjoy.

Valenzuela was actually the Blossoms' lead vocalist in one early incarnation of the band, and his harmony vocals are one of the key building blocks of the band's full, guitar-driven sound. He's also one of the band's principal songwriters, along with lead vocalist Robin Wilson. So the potential is there for this to be a great album -- and yet, I can't help thinking of Lindsey Buckingham's solo albums while listening to it. Good songs, excellent musicianship… and a nagging, near-constant sensation of something missing.

Valenzuela's voice has a pleasantly smoky edge to it, and his sense of melody is terrific. On ballads like the melancholy "Damaged Goods" and the country-rock croon "Broken-Hearted Kind" (written with longtime Eagles collaborator J.D. Souther), he wraps his gently lilting voice around the songs and gives them just the tender shadings they need.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The problem comes quite literally in the crunch. Valenzuela can write terrific, driving rock and roll numbers with fat, crunchy guitars -- a Blossoms specialty -- he just doesn't quite have the vocal wattage required to sing lead on them. You almost inevitably start speculating on what tracks like the ringing opener "Spark" and the thumping "Can't Go Down" would sound like done by the Blossoms, with Valenzuela singing harmony behind Wilson. (My guess: terrific.)

Valenzuela's is a voice better suited to mid-tempo numbers that rely heavily on melody and phrasing, a genre on which he wisely concentrates here. His vocals shine on well-constructed numbers like the lounge-blues "Bulletproof Jacket" and the juicy, Latin-inflected "Andale Pues," even if it's hard to imagine these numbers finding a home on today's rigidly categorized radio dial. The title of this disc is a sarcastic - and also realistic -- jibe at the fact that these songs are generally mature and sophisticated in a way just about guaranteed to prevent airplay.

They're so sophisticated, in fact, that the album runs a little dry in places. Take, for example, "Lucky Stars," one the aforementioned melodic mid-tempo numbers. Subtle, effective guitar work and a soaring, catchy pop chorus frame a song about… well, it's hard to put your finger on it, because Valenzuela's lyric doesn't give you enough to really tell. The only song on which Valenzuela breaks through the emotional reserve and cuts loose is the closing "Someone Else," a four-minute rant aimed squarely at the man in the mirror.

The album features a strong supporting cast including longtime Valenzuela collaborator Darryl Icard on bass, session vet Gary Mallaber on drums and guests including underground power-pop deity Tommy Keene joining him on guitar. But this is Valenzuela's show; he calls all the shots, and as satisfying as that has to be for an artist, the end result is sturdy, well-executed… and not all that compelling.

Instead, this solidly-crafted album suggests that, like a lot of other excellent songwriters in rock history, the most effective vehicle for Valenzuela's music is still the band he's attempting to stand clear of for a moment. The Fleetwood Mac analogy fits both because Lindsey Buckingham and Jesse Valenzuela are major songwriting talents, and because the Gin Blossoms' history has more than a little Fleetwood Mac-style uber-drama to it. But also -- more to the point -- because, intriguing solo efforts aside, experience has proven that the band context is the one in which this singer-songwriter's music succeeds most often.

Rating: B+

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© 2002 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Gabriel Records, and is used for informational purposes only.