I swear I’m not going to make this into some kind of “in remembrance” rant about the 90’s (I believe I already took that direction once…or twice?). I do recall really liking this album when it came out and in retrospect this one is really quite interesting. The New Radicals are known today as a one-hit wonder, which they most certainly were – they were not really a band, instead sort of a revolving collective of musicians centered around Gregg Alexander. Alexander had been kicking around the music industry for a while; he had two prior solo albums to his name but seemed to really be seeking some kind of major record deal. I remember hearing about those solo albums and wondering what they sounded like; they’re still nearly impossible to find, and thanks to the internet I can say that they really aren’t all that good (plus, the second one is essentially a repackaging of the first).
I was drawn to the New Radicals because they were different – I was already pretty cynical about the world of pop music at the age of 12, which was the era of boy bands, increasingly young starlets, dinosaur acts suddenly getting major help from high-dollar producers, and “these guys don’t even write their own songs!” (though I guess that had been true for a long time). The New Radicals at least felt a lot less manufactured; certainly their image wasn’t, hitting that uneasy balance between trying-too-hard and not-trying-at-all. The cover of the album may be stylized, but if the hat, shoes, and barcode tattoo looked awful in ’98, they look doubly awful today. But they had a pretty big hit that stood apart from most everything else on the radio, particularly in a big year for R&B. “You Get What You Give” is a song whose merits are still debated today. For the defense, you’ve got it’s near-perfect construction, it’s impossibly melodic backing, and it’s incredibly memorable opening – if nothing else the first 30 seconds of it are as enjoyable as anything in pop music. For the prosecution, it’s awfully repetitive, doesn’t even bother with a chorus, and is oddly personality-free. But it does stand out in that it feels outside its era – this sounds like something Todd Rundgren could’ve had a hit with in his 70’s heyday, and I can imagine it being big even today. Hell, I remember thinking “even my Dad might like this” when it first came out (he called it “irritating”).
Single aside, I do remember this album quite well. It’s atypical of 90’s pop in that it features way more piano than guitar, but it’s produced in a way that makes the arrangements secondary; everything is glossy and smoothed out, and the more subversive bits feel calculated and deliberate. In fact this is much like another album I just reviewed here – Mike Doughty’s Haughty Melodic, which I believe I concluded as being pretty good despite the clear overthinking. On the other hand, you really can’t go wrong with an approach like this, even if it takes the personality out of the band – like the Doughty album I never found myself caring about any of the other musicians on here. Maybe that was the point in the first place. We open with “Mother, We Just Can’t Get Enough”, a funk-rocker that’s equal parts Rolling Stones, Madchester, and the similarly titled Depeche Mode single. It’s an easy stand-out; there’s a good, easy-to-remember groove, and Gregg bleats out the chorus like he’s freakin’ Bono. Sadly, it also features a truly regrettable ending that nearly blows the whole thing. I’ll let you hear it for yourself.
This is an easy album to go back-and-forth on, as it seems to be constantly balancing Alexander’s eccentricies with his songwriting skill, and it’s not clear which side wins. Alexander is a good singer, but he can be hard to love; he relies a lot on falsetto, holds his notes for too long, and forces himself into several guises that don’t quite fit. Often it sounds like these songs were written for several voices, but Gregg just does them all himself. A lot of memorable bits come out this way – I always crack up at “BIIIRKIN out for a miracaaale” (“In Need of a Miracle”) or the Miss Piggy backing melody on “Technicolor Lover” (a song that the creators of Sifl & Olly ought to be jealous of). Moments like that stand out because most of this is done so straight – there are some more experimental bits, such as the improvised vocal layering that begins the seven-minute “I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away the Ending”, or the title track which is a clear stab at doing something trippy and weird. Both of those songs work, as it comes back to tunefulness – Alexander really drives “I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away the Ending” (despite some questionable lyrics), and “Brainwashed” is melodic and never quite goes off the deep end the way you think it might. In fact I find myself wishing that there was more along those lines – the more straight-faced material can be a drag. There are songs that are whiny (“I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore”), forgettable (“Crying Like a Church on Monday”), or just insubstantial (“Flowers”, “Gotta Stay High”).
In retrospect it’s no surprise that Alexander spent the rest of his career writing and producing for other artists – many of these songs sound like they were written for other people, and it’s all over the place lyrically. Sometimes it’s almost eye-rollingly saccharine (“Someday We’ll Know”, “Jehovah Made This Whole Joint For You”…both great songs otherwise), sometimes they’re almost pointedly irritating (“Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough”, “I Hope I Didn’t Give Away the Ending”) or confusing (“Technicolor Lover”). Or, you could look no further than the hit, which is all of the above, and contained a rather stupid social experiment to boot. According to Alexander, the coda of the song was about both “real issues” and calling out actual celebrities, in order to see which side the media focused on. Of course they centered on the celebrity bit – one, because “Health insurance rip off lying” is not exactly cutting social commentary, and two, because calling out Hanson (a band of literal teenagers – their drummer had just turned 13) is kind of a weird thing to do. But in the end, tunefulness won out.