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Friday, January 2, 2009

Better Than Ezra Album: I will now defend a Better Than Ezra album.

Insert your best "What the fuck" right here I suppose, but, yes, I will now defend a Better Than Ezra album.

It's funny that I decided a few days ago to revisit this album for this column. When I was giving a preview to the best friend yesterday, I thought I couldn't of timed this post better. This week is 10 years exactly since the album was released. Sometimes, I have a good thing with timing and sometimes I don't. I'm happy this one worked out at least.

1998 was an interesting time for alternative rock. In the year prior, The Chemical Brothers came out of nowhere with Dig Your Own Hole and the smash singles "Setting Sun" and "Block Rockin' Beats". The question on the mind of every prominent musician and music fan was that of "Is this it? Is electronica the next big movement?" This paved the way for bands to rethink their rock and roll approach: The Smashing Pumpkins did it in June of 1998 with their dark opus, Adore, and in 1999 Blur would trade in their "Woo-ooh's!" for melancholy, malaise and keyboards and drum loops on 13. And in between these two releases, in August of 1998, Better Than Ezra emerged with a collection that no one could've seen coming. An album that was a critical landmark and a commercial flop, a fish out of water, gasping for its last moments of air.

It was in 1998 that a Sunday night tune-in to Modern Rock Live, the syndicated new music show where Max Tolkoff interviewed bands with new album's who would sometimes play in the studio, would bring us to where we are now, to this tale. Max talked with the trio from N'awlins and it was the song "One More Murder" that just blew me away. I had my worn out copy of Deluxe, thanks to the alterna-hit "Good", and I also enjoyed the track "Rosalita", but nothing had moved me in their catalog like this song did. It's dark piano started it off: it sounded like it was going to be a trip-hop number until the drums kicked in. And there was no guitar, it was all keyboards, samples, programmed elements. Kevin Griffin sang of chalk line profiles, times spent in the slammer, all while speaking it in a gruff deep in the right channel of the mix.

There was no "Good" on this album; no "Desperately Wanting" to be found among the 14 tracks on an album subtitled A Series of Nocturnes. There would be songs that would hark back to their earlier rock-infused roots like "Pull", but you wouldn't know from the opening moments of the album. The first song, "Je Ne M'en Souviens Pas" let the listener know they were not getting a sequel to their first two albums. Starting off with drum loops, keys and samples would enter the fold before treated vocals would deliver a muffled line. Eventually, Griffin would start to ramble low in the mix, like any other man in BTE's beloved home of New Orleans. He kept talking while he started singing while that inital first line came back in. I'm sure most people turned this off right away, being confused by what in the hell was going on, but I was just floored.

And while at most times experimenting with the trip-hop and the electronica that was being dubbed the music of our futures, they did know how to step back for a minute and try to fuse both past and present for a future sound. The very minor hit "At The Stars" was a solid radio hit, as if they had to go back at the 11th hour and add that one in, but everything else found ways to incorporate what they were and what they wanted to be. The best examples would be that of the epic "Particle", with it's drum loop intro and programmed elements throughout that fought for their time in the six-minutes of the song with strings and guitars.

What brings it all together is the closing pair of tracks. There's the mini-suite "New Kind Of Low" - "a) Low" was 80 seconds of just loud rock guitars, fuzzy sludge bass and barked out lyrics, which then is met with samples firing off, signalling the transition in to "b) Coma". This part was a rollicking slow blues jam without BB King's guitar, just wurlitzers, keyboards and introspective lyrics. It showcased a fully realized idea of what this three men were trying to accomplish, throwing their names in to the rocktronica hat. And you think the album would there, but instead it goes in to "Waxing Or Waning?" It was a three-minute afterthought, a jazzy epilogue with 12-string guitars, muted horns and a near-waltz created by the bass drum and hi hat. I'm convinced there's no snare in the mix at all.

Die hard fans of this band easily cite this the best album in the band's catalog, and it's pretty obvious why. It's also an album that completes the trifecta of albums released in 1998 on Elektra by bands that got dropped soon thereafter (the other albums? Nada Surf's The Proximity Effect and Superdrag's Head Trip in Every Key. Duh.) Serene and experimental, it makes you wish they would've made another album like this, but they didn't. Like all great bands who experiment, they eventually denounce what they were trying to do as an artistic statement and go back to their old ways. Sometimes, maybe they should just stay true to what they wanted to be as opposed to going back to play the same dog and pony show that is comfortable.

CEO Jimmy Jam Records
Big Media Excitement

Friday, December 12, 2008

Better Than Ezra Album Art

Along with such similarly styled outfits as the Goo Goo Dolls, the New Orleans trio Better Than Ezra helped open the floodgates for countless mainstream alt-pop acts of the late '90s (Sugar Ray, Semisonic, Matchbox Twenty, Third Eye Blind, etc.) by merging rock with melody and creating a more easily digestible form of alternative music for the masses. Originally formed in 1988 as a roots rock outfit with slight elements of country and punk, the group consisted of four college students from Louisiana State University: Kevin Griffin (vocals, guitar), Joel Rundell (guitar), Tom Drummond (bass), and Cary Bonnecaze (drums). The band's first performances were expectedly held at college bars and fraternity houses, and their debut cassette-tape recording, 1990's Surprise, received positive press and comparisons to such alt-punk stalwarts as the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr. Despite these accolades, Better Than Ezra's future was suddenly thrust into doubt when Rundell committed suicide on August 8, 1990.

CFO GoogleRock Video
Jon Stansford

Friday, August 22, 2008

Better Than Ezra Live on Planet Earth: Good

Better Than Ezra Good (Good) Lyrics

Lookin around the house
Hidden behind the window and the door
Searchin for signs of life but theres nobody home

Well maybe Im just too sure
Or maybe Im just too frightened by the sound of it
Pieces of note fall down but the letter said (wahow)

It was good livin with you (wahow)
It was good (awwawawa, wahow)
It was good livin with you (wahow)
It was good (awwawawa)
Good, good, good, good, good, good

Sittin around the house
Watchin the sun trace shadows on the floor
Searchin for signs of life but theres nobody home
Well, maybe Ill call or Ill write you a letter
Now maybe well see on the fourth of july

But Im not too sure, and Im not too proud
Well Im not too sure and Im not too proud to say (wahow)

It was good livin with you (wahow)
It was good (awwawawa, wahow)
It was good livin with you (wahow)
It was good...awhh, good.

Awh, wahow
It was good livin with you (wahow)
It was good (awwawawa, wahow)
It was good livin with you (wahow)
It was good (awwawawa, awwawawanh)

Yeah you were so good
Yeah you were so good
Yeah....thats right! (really high pitched, low volume, squeaky voice)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Live on Planet Earth: Better than Ezra

Summer of 1980

13-year-old singer/guitarist Kevin Griffin's high school rock outfit Aces Up wins a "battle of the bands" kind of affair. First prize: The band gets to record its own 45 ("Seek, Find, Destroy" b/w a cover of Kiss' "Cold Gin").

Spring of 1987

Playing music throughout his formative years, Kevin finds himself at LSU in Baton Rouge without a band. He meets up with Cary Bonnecaze, late of Reality Patio, a band that had achieved a modicum of local status by signing to 688 Records. The trio is rounded out by a bass player so awful they put off the formation of the band for a year.

Spring of 1988

Kevin and Cary are reunited when they go on a double date with twin sisters. 17-year-old Tom Drummond is the first to answer their "Bass Player Wanted" ad. They begin to "mold him into the rock star he is today."

Better Than Ezra

"It's a long story," Kevin says. "And one that always lets people down whenever we finally tell them what it means. Trust me, it's better left unsaid." One guess found on the band's web page: From p.78 of Hemingway's A Movable Feast: "Anything was better than Ezra learning to play the bassoon..." The band plays its first gig at Murphy's, a Baton Rouge club where Kevin was working at the time. He fabricates the band's name and identity to fill an open night on the club's calendar. Subsequently, the band is good enough that his boss doesn't fire him when he is inevitably found out on stage.

Summer of 1988

Armed with a five-song cassette and an almost completely fictitious bio/resume, Better Than Ezra heads up to Boston and proceeds to play every club in town. The band practices in its apartment, working on songs that eventually become its self-made-and-manufactured debut, Surprise.

Fall of 1988

Better Than Ezra returns to Louisiana. Makes money playing bars, parties, frat houses, etc... in any town in driving distance for any offer covering gas money. "There is no substitute for just getting in a van and going, playing night in/night out," says Griffin. "It's the only way to become a tight band."

Spring of 1990

Surprise cassette is "released," i.e. sold on consignment to stores in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee. 6,000 are initially manufactured and quickly sell out. Kevin graduates from LSU. Band hits the road full time.

Fall of 1990

Original rhythm guitar player Joel Rundell passes away. "When that happened, I just wanted to get out of Baton Rouge," Griffin recalls. "You're 20, you're out touring in a band, partying and suddenly you've lost a close friend. "I think we were intelligent enough to see that there was a plateau there, the possibility of stagnation. Bar band purgatory was just around the corner." Kevin moves to Santa Fe and Tom and Cary enroll at LSU as Better Than Ezra go on indefinite hiatus.

Winter of 1990

Kevin moves to Aspen, playing half-original/half-cover acoustic sets for a living. He continues to receive letters from Better Than Ezra's friends and fan club. Finally, in December, he, Cary and Tom are coaxed into reuniting. Better Than Ezra plays its first show as a three-piece at Murphy's that month.

Spring of 1991

The trio plays every so often. The songs that will become the Deluxe album begin to take shape.

Summer of 1991

"The thoughts that go through everyone's heads: Do I keep playing music? Get into the music business? Whatever..." Kevin relocates to Los Angeles. "A really miserable time." On a lark, he sends a 4-track tape of 12 songs to a local mag that surprisingly runs a review that even more surprisingly attracts calls from several records company types.

Spring of 1992

The other two Ezra's are convinced to make the move the LA. Cohabiting once more, they play a disastrous "showcase" ("the world yawned"), play considerably better shows at Cafe Largo in the Fairfax district, and start recording demos at friend Dan Rothchild's home studio. Kevin: "Due to the studio size we had to mic the guitar amps from our '82 Dodge van parked two stories below. I guess the sonic qualities of shag carpeting were such that we got these great guitar tones." The demos will become Deluxe.

Summer of 1993

Deluxe is released on Better Than Ezra's own Swell Records, complete with artwork by the band. Album release party is held at the Varsity in Baton Rouge.

Spring of 1994

The band plays Austin's South By South West music festival/convention. Deluxe has sold in excess of 12,000 CD's independently. Sales and radio numbers steadily increasing. Contracts are being waved.

Fall of 1994

Better Than Ezra plays the CMJ convention in New York City. Deluxe breaks 30,000. By year's end, deejays are going out and buying copies of Deluxe to satisfy requests.

Winter of 1995

Better Than Ezra strikes a deal with Elektra to "lease" Deluxe from the band's Swell Records. "Good" is a hit. Within six months, Deluxe goes from 50,000 to 500,000. "'Good's success had its downside," Griffin says. "People who didn't know our history thought we were just another pop hit band. Nothing could be further from the truth. In one article, we were called an 'MTV confection' and in another we were lumped in with a bunch of bands who'd 'never spent one day on the road in an unheated van.' The 'Good' video wasn't even made until after the song was a radio hit. The same thing happened with 'In The Blood,' which proved itself at radio before MTV ever played it."

Spring 1995 - Winter 1996

Better Than Ezra tours and tours and tours. Develops its own mailing list numbering more that 10,000 ("Ezra-lites"), sends out an exclusive Christmas tape to each fan on said list. Shortly thereafter the band replaces Cary. Kevin: "It was mutually agreed that in order to remain friends, we needed to part ways." Long time friend and New Orleans native, Travis McNabb joins the band. "He's just peachy," quips Tom Drummond.

Spring 1996

Better Than Ezra records its major label debut, friction, baby. "We wanted to record a big overblown, self gratuitous album and I think we did. But we got more... a lot more."

Yes, finally, the Blossoms were officially reunited. The reformed band hit the road in April 2002 with a series of warm-up dates, and in July, they’ll be headlining the national New World Disorder Tour, also featuring the Spin Doctors, 7 Mary 3, and Sponge.