For my 12th birthday, I received a particularly great gift – a $50 gift certificate to the local music store. Back then this was a pretty big deal and not something to be taken lightly. I had maybe six CDs tops, plus whatever I could steal from my parents. And with a two-dollar allowance, whatever I got was probably going to have to last until Christmas at the very least. But it’s more than that when you’re in those preteen years; music was an identity. I have no clue if middle schoolers these days are sharing Spotify playlists or whatever but back then it was all about what’s in your CD jacket. As someone just about to enter 7th grade this was very important to me. If you had cool music tastes then you were somewhat cool, unless you weren’t cool, then you were a poser. If you listened to what your parents liked, then you were a loser, or you were poor. If you liked stuff that nobody ever heard of, then you were an enigma, but nobody wanted to talk to you. Am I getting this right? Unfortunately there were not very many avenues for me to discover new music; I had MTV and the radio, and that was about it. Every music video was like a sales pitch.
Now, some simple math here – new CDs were $14.99 at a minimum back then, and often got as expensive as $17.99. Yeah, this was peak-era CD price gouging, and yet somehow I remember getting four CDs with that gift certificate, which means I’m misremembering something. Most likely I bought one of them with my allowance money, because God knows you couldn’t steal ’em, not with those bulky plastic handles attached. Whatever it was, these four discs form a set in my mind, and I have probably not heard any of them in over 12 years. No time like the present, right?
Matchbox 20 – Yourself or Someone Like You (1996)
You know, I never cared much for Matchbox 20, but they seemed decent enough, and at the time this album had just spawned its sixth single. You see, the big danger of buying CDs based off the radio single is that you ran the risk of the CD being terrible otherwise. I think perhaps more than any decade of music, the 90’s were full of artists who had a great single or two in them, but that was it. To me this was a safe purchase, but in retrospect kind of a dumb one since I didn’t particularly like any of the songs on it. For all I know I could’ve ended up with Dizzy Up the Girl by the Goo Goo Dolls, but they had a stupid name. Matchbox 20, now there was a great band name. Not a great band, but they had a good singer. Rob Thomas was kind of a goober but he was fun to imitate.
As for the album there really isn’t much I can say about it. I think that’s mostly by design. Matchbox 20 feel less like a band and more like living, breathing product. There is one song that almost flirts with industrial-like heaviness (“Busted”), and one real soppy AOR ballad (“Back 2 Good”), but other than that most of these songs stick to a rather strict template. In one ear and out the other, but at least they’re crafted alright. Rob’s wide-mouthed croon, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, rhythm section, in that order. No personality whatsoever, they might as well all be studio musicians, or robots. For what it’s worth this was, I suppose, kind of notable in its own way. I mean this was the era of boy bands, gangster rap, and punks with spiked hair. Rob Thomas was just a dude. The rest of the band…just dudes, but you couldn’t remember what any of them looked like. They had no image whatsoever, exemplified by the baffling photograph they put on the front cover – who was this guy and what did he have to do with Matchbox 20, or a single lyric on this album for that matter?
One interesting thing here is the sequencing – the six singles are the first six tracks, the second half was the “album material”. Well, by interesting, I just mean it takes the late-90’s trend of frontloading to its logical conclusion. For the record the album ain’t bad, even the songs on the second half don’t exactly suck. But it does make a person wonder what the hell the fuss was all about. 15 million copies, really? Wait, didn’t I buy one of them? I guess a lot of people thought the same way I did, if you’re going to spend $15+ on a CD, might as well be assured that you’re getting a few decent songs. And you know what, those singles are plenty decent. Bland as hell, but if they had any edge to them they’d be Nickelback, and you don’t want that do ya?
For the record, Rob Thomas always seemed like a nice enough dude to me, so that alone makes me give him a little more leeway. I think he’s as surprised by his success as everyone else.
Everclear – So Much For the Afterglow (1997)
Here’s one label I remember I lot of in the late-90’s: “alternative rock”. I don’t know what the label meant then and I still don’t now, though it’s not like anyone uses the term anymore. Back then it was a bit frustrating because music stores had the “rock” section, the “pop” section, and then the “alt-rock” section, and bands like Everclear could turn up in any one of them. As far as I could tell, “rock” was for Aerosmith, “pop” was for Britney Spears, and “alt-rock” was any band with guitars that was still trying to get played on the radio. That was the rule, at least. But it’s easy to imagine a record store clerk big into Metallica and Iron Maiden filing this in the pop section. Everclear were one of those bands that looked like they could rock, but by the time of this album they mostly kept it in their back pocket. Oh, they do thrash n’ burn from time to time, even doing a pretty clever fake out on the first track. But when you think of Everclear, you think of “Santa Monica”; guitar-driven pop with sort of an edge to it. Weezer for kids with nose rings.
Thing is, the band had a big Achilles’ heel: they were not very good at writing songs. Don’t take this to mean they wrote bad songs, rather they just didn’t know a lot of chord progressions. Given the major label interest in So Much For the Afterglow, this put Everclear in a tough spot, because they needed singles. So they did the only thing they could – either re-write “Santa Monica” (“I Will Buy You a New Life”), or try to Frankenstein together something that sounds like a hit. Even 12-year old me knew the bass line on “Everything to Everyone” was the same exact chord sequence that every other half-grungy band was using, plus the same power pop drum beat that was all over the radio. I hate to single out Everclear on this but there is almost nothing else to the song than that. Certainly it’s still listenable, after all those things still work, but it scores a solid zero in the category of originality. “Father of Mine” was a combination of both approaches, and it wound up becoming the album’s big hit, maybe because of the lyrics, which a lot of people were able to identify with. But how much of it can you remember now?
The story of Art Alexakis was that he’d led a tough life; he’d grown up poor, his father walked out on him, he got into drugs and eventually wound up attempting suicide. By the time Everclear formed he was already a recovered burnout, well into his 30’s when Afterglow was released. Not that you’d know it by reading some of these lyrics, which is teen angst all the way, indicative more of the guy who had no friends, rather than the dude who literally tried to kill himself. They want you to be like that, but I think we should stay like this. They give you pills to make you normal, but maybe they’re the ones who are fucked up. We could be happy but society won’t let us.
All that in mind, I actually dug this album more than I thought I would. Not the most creative bunch, but unlike Matchbox 20 they’ve got some zip in ’em. I’m still lukewarm on the singles, though I do love “One Hit Wonder”, the album’s 4th, and sadly a total flop – I saw the video on TRL (where bands like Everclear made their bread) once, but that was it. And believe me, I looked. But the rest of the disc is fine, particularly when they do turn the distortion up (“Amphetamine”). They do try to inject a little variety into the album, even turning up the twang towards the end (“Sunflowers”, “Why I Don’t Believe in God”). There’s some awkwardness in the backing vocals and the bits of adventurous instrumentation that crop up from time to time, but that’s a major label album for you. Sadly the band seemed to fizzle out after this one, falling curse to the almighty hit single, which drove them to become toothless outside of the occasional “we can still rock, you know” song. And then they inexplicably transformed into a classic rock covers band. But hey, if it pays the bills. Apparently Everclear is still around and touring, and Art’s top is as short and bleached as it ever was. Kudos for sticking it out.
Fastball – All the Pain Money Can Buy (1998)
Every year there seemed to be an act who delivered a excellent crossover hit but caught flack because the rest of the album didn’t sound anything like it. ’97 was the year of Sugar Ray and “Fly”, ’99 the year of Len and “Steal My Sunshine”, and in between you had a little band called Fastball. “The Way” was a crunchy tune with a big Latin influence, plus it had a neat story behind it, being based on the real-life story of an elderly couple that suddenly went missing. It was crispy enough to hit the band big, at least for a brief while. I remember my Mom telling me it reminded her of the Beatles, which I suppose is a pretty high compliment for a band like this. But listening back to it now, it’s clear that it’s sort of a fluke – so quirked out and tuned for radio play, it’s no surprise that the rest of the record didn’t really resemble it. Yeah, there’s sort of a C&W/power pop feel throughout, but no real rumblers like that one. Fastball are one of those bands that plays Rock Like It Used To Be; snappy guitars, harmonies, electric piano, and that big ol’ organ. The best compliment I can pay them is that they sound a bit like Elvis Costello, and not just because the vocals are similar – if these dudes weren’t listening to This Year’s Model when recording this album, I’ll eat my shoe.
Of course, they didn’t have the snappiness or cleverness of Costello; they’re tuneful alright, but rather bland. They feel more like an actual band than Matchbox 20, for what that’s worth, but their songwriting and playing is just as by-the-book. The album is fine, but the singles are the high points; “The Way”, “Fire Escape”, and “Out Of My Head” are all worth another listen. Hard to remember much otherwise, outside of “Sooner or Later” (“AWW BABY YEAH BABY!!!”) and “Good Old Days”, which is a dead ringer for early Beatles. “Charlie, the Methadone Man” has an interesting riff, but it’s the same sunshine pop as everything else. Listening back there ain’t much to recommend here, they write good songs, but so do a thousand other bands. I guess I still have a soft spot for “Fire Escape” (“I can be myself….doot doot doo!!”), and of course “The Way” always sounds good. Though after sitting atop the Modern Rock chart for almost two months, it’s not like you really need to hear it again.
So things mostly worked out for them, in the short term at least. With one massive hit and two moderately successful ones they were able to pay back their advances and bank a tidy sum for themselves. Alas, they didn’t seem to come out of it with a whole lot of fans, and their 2000 follow-up The Harsh Light of Day sold only 85,000 copies (compared to a million-plus for this album). Trouble is Fastball didn’t exactly have the same charm of some of their peers; there was no star power there whatsoever, just three dudes who got lucky. Three perfectly nice, hardworking dudes I’m sure, but Fastball were never more than “that one band…”.
Funny story, I actually have a bit of a bone to pick with them. Some time ago Fastball were scheduled to headline Metro Jam, Manitowoc’s annual music festival, which often succeeds in booking somewhat well-known one-hitters as headliners (the last year it was The Knack, in what I think may have been Doug Fieger’s last show). About two days before the show they abruptly cancelled, no explanation or anything. Not only a disaster for the bookers who were suddenly scrambling to find a replacement (they did not), but also personally disappointing because I did once like this band and now they were essentially playing in my backyard. Granted, Manitowoc was only some small Wisconsin town back then, not the center of a universally acclaimed murder-mystery documentary. Hell, we could probably pull Smash Mouth this year.
Barenaked Ladies – Stunt (1998)
Here’s to the summer of “YIIIT’S BEEN”. Look, I know the song hasn’t aged well, and it’s probably the one tune on this list that’ll still get you chucked out of a party. But I remember people liking it at the time, at least in that week or two before it started getting ridiculously overplayed. I remember the Ladies getting praise for their wit and cleverness, doing countless interviews where they were asked “how’d you think of that?”. Looking back it was a total counter-culture move; the 90’s were the decade of gangster rap, where hip-hop was often vicious or contained excerpts from someone’s life story. A lot of people liked it but couldn’t exactly identify with it. So naturally there’d be a counter-movement where you could just do jokey raps about random things. “One Week” exemplified that of course, an attempt to shoehorn in as many pop culture references as possible without losing the basic framework of an actual song. Hip-hop it was not, but then again what was it exactly? Whatever it was, the Ladies knew they had a novelty hit on their hands, and took every opportunity to smash the thing with overproduction, which explains why the song is such a turn-off now. It may have sounded fresh in ’98, but now it comes off as utterly contrived, the sort of novelty tune too haughty to roll around in its own stupidity. The nerve.
But who can blame them – it worked didn’t it? Unlike the other acts on this list, the Ladies were practically veterans when they had their U.S. breakthrough, and were already considered to be a bit washed up in Canada, from whence they came. Their debut Gordon was a smash up there, but their next couple releases didn’t generate the same enthusiasm. Unsurprisingly, they did eventually fine their audience in the States. They appealed to a certain crowd; awkward teenage boys who went their own way because they couldn’t hack it doing anything else. A crowd I was very much in as you can imagine, which may be why I wound up with five of their CDs by the time I was 14. The Barenaked Ladies are full of quirks and are primarily known as a joke band, but there was a certain earnestness to them; they didn’t posture nor attempt to be edgy. Plus the songs on the CD all sounded different than one another, which I appreciated a lot back then.
As it turns out, this was the one CD on the list I really could remember front to back, which makes it difficult to evaluate now. Certainly those first two songs aren’t going to do much for me anymore (“It’s All Been Done” is in some ways even more obnoxious than “One Week”) but I admit that some of this still sounds good. Truth be told they actually do nail some of the more earnest material; “Call and Answer” is about as overwrought and cloying as this band could ever get, but it’s still incredibly pretty. If it had gathered the same sort of popularity as the first two tracks then the band’s reputation may be far different today. “Light Up My Room” is also a lot better than I’d remembered, not least because of the rather creepy lyrics, about living across from a power plant. There’s a song towards the end I used to like a lot (“Some Fantastic”), though I’ve now come to realize it shares more than a passing resemblance to Squeeze’s “Goodbye Girl”, which I feel is exactly the sort of tune these guys have spent their career trying to write. Granted there’s that feeling of reaching-but-not-quite-getting-there throughout the full album; good riffs that can’t find a chorus (“Leave”), disparate parts that don’t quite cohere into a coherent tune (“Who Needs Sleep?”), naked confessionals that wind up tame because they reveal too much (“In the Car”).
Still, it was nice to see a band like them make it, particularly given the charts were in the midst of being dominated by boy bands and pop idols. They actually wound up delivering on a follow-up, too – I remember their next album Maroon being better than this one, and the lead single “Pinch Me” actually succeeded in putting “One Week” to rest. That said I had lost interest in the band by then, so I’ll have to get back to you on that one. A few years later I saw Disc One: All Their Greatest Hits on the shelf for $9.99 and bought it, making it obvious to me what I should’ve known all along – these guys were a great singles band after all. Sadly they seem to have fizzled out soon after that, their only notable recording since being the theme from The Big Bang Theory, which makes me want to jam pencils in my ears. And yet they’re still cranking out albums, even after losing Steven Page, the band’s frontman.
Just goes to show…one song really is all you need.