Benchmark Records, 2002
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/10/2002
Sometimes before you can move forward, you first need to look back. It's true in life; it's true in music. Personally, I admire the fact the when Tempe, Arizona's long-gone favorite sons the Gin Blossoms re-grouped this year, they didn't rush a new album out. There were practical reasons, of course - five years of rust as a musical unit and no record deal, for a couple of big ones.
But still, as a fan it's nice to have the guys spend a little time reminding us why we missed them and learning to play together again before tackling the challenges of a new studio album. This month saw the re-release of not one but two Blossoms oldies-but-goodies. Second in line was the 10th anniversary deluxe edition of the magnificent New Miserable Experience, the subject of next Thursday's review. First, though, came the re-release of this little diamond in the rough - the Blossoms' first full-length indie record, dating all the way back to the band's club days in 1989.
Dusted is rough around the edges in all the ways you might expect. The production is almost non-existent, as if this was pretty much a plug-in-and-play live performance. Compared to the band's later, trademark rich twin-guitar sound, this album's guitars sound soft and/or tinny, the drums muffled, the vocals slightly distant, like the guys were standing a few feet away from their mics, still midstream in the process of figuring how to attack these songs.
Do-it-yourself albums are usually like that; the songs really have to stand or fall on pure musical merit rather than professional production values. Not surprisingly - remember, this is the disc that got the band signed in the first place - they do. The band - Robin Wilson on lead vocals, Jesse Valenzuela on guitar and harmony vocals, Bill Leen on bass, Phil Rhodes on drums and Doug Hopkins on guitar -- was still learning, but the bursting-at-the-seams talent present in the room is obvious.
One of the amazing things to hear is the difference in the songs that two years later made it onto New Miserable Experience. "Lost Horizons," "Found Out About You" and "Hey Jealousy," three of the band's strongest tracks, were all recorded at considerably faster tempos here. (As the band's manager said recently on their e-mail list "Yes, they really did play everything that fast. The tape speed isn't wrong.") You're left to speculate on why. Was Hopkins, the tortured musical prodigy who wrote all three songs before alcoholism and depression sent him spiraling out of the band, having a hard time letting the desperately melancholy lyrics stand on their own? Did it take NME producer John Hampton's influence for the band to realize the songs have more emotional impact played at a more deliberate pace? Or were they just young and impatient?
Other intriguing artifacts on this album include first takes on the Gram Parsons-ish country-rock ballad "Angels Tonight," the wry Wilson rocker "Idiot Summer" and Hopkins' tongue-in-cheek porn-star tribute "Keli Richards," all staples of the band's early live shows.
The reamining tracks catalogue both the Blossoms' prodigious musical abilities and their still-present learning curve. One-time lead singer Valenzuela takes the mic for three tracks ("Something Wrong," "I Can Sleep" and "Fireworks"), all high-energy, melodic rock numbers that deserve consideration for re-recording, but also each a strong argument for Robin Wilson as the band's lead vocalist. Valenzuela is an excellent writer and guitar player, but his gentle, smoky voice is better suited to harmonies and ballads than taking the lead on heavy rock songs.
The positive aspect of the garage-band production is that it strips the songs down to their musical core. In its major-label days, the richness of the band's twin-guitar attack tended to obscure their roots and influences. I remember reading about jangle-rock progenitors the Byrds' tremendous influence on the Blossoms and straining to hear it through the turbo-charged guitar leads. But with Dusted's stripped-down sound, it's impossible to listen to songs like "Something Wrong" without thinking "So that's what Marshall Crenshaw and the Byrds would sound like together."
Any Blossoms fan is going to want to own this album both for strong rarities like "Slave Dealer's Daughter" and to hear the original versions of classic Blossoms cuts like "Hey Jealousy." For everyone else, production values aside, this album - available via the Benchmark Records Web site, as well as CDNOW-- stands up well as a historical milestone in the still-unfolding career of a great band.