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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Criminally Overlooked: Better Than Ezra: "How Does Your Garden Grow?"


Being in a band is easy if you don't have any desire to be respected. It's just a matter of making whatever people like and following the train to Moneytown.

Take the band Sugar Ray, for example. They had a one-off pop hit in 1997 named "Fly" that sounded like a fun reggae-themed jam, sold like crazy, made them tons of money, and everyone hates now. The problem was that the album that "Fly" came from, Floored, was a rap/rock album, and no one liked any other tracks off of it. What was a non-self-respecting band to do?

Sugar Ray decided that they were better off following the money, and abandoned all rap-rock aspirations with their next album, 14:59. 14:59 was a fun reggae-themed album, sold like crazy, made them tons of money, and everyone hates it now. But big deal! Sugar Ray made money, and that was all that mattered.

If Sugar Ray had more self-respect, they may have said, "Hey, we make rap/rock, we like rap/rock, and we'll make more rap/rock, no matter what people say. Deal with it." They didn't, and they made tons of money. C'est la vie.

That brings us to Better Than Ezra. They had one big hit in 1995, with a song called "Good." Everyone sing along with the chorus!


"A-wah-haw. It was goooood, living with you wah-haw. It was goooood, living with you wah-haw."

Better Than Ezra, to their credit, didn't just want to be the band that made "Good." They wanted to be Real Artists. They tried with their next album, Friction, Baby, to prove that they could do just that. The album cover was even in black-and-white! That's as artistic as you can get!

Even though Friction, Baby was a really good record, they still got no respect for being a "real band." The public at large still viewed them as a one-hit wonder because of a song that had an unfortunate vocal tic. That mean that it was time for them to throw down the gauntlet and prove that Better Than Ezra was a Real Band, that they were True Artists that made Important Music.

Their next album, released in 1998, was called How Does Your Garden Grow? It was subtitled "A Series of Nocturnes," the first track was called "Je Ne M'en Souviens Pas," and it had electronic flourishes and two-part songs because that is Just What You Did when you wanted to prove you were a Serious Artist.

It would be easy to dismiss Garden as the work of a band adorably overreaching their actual talent level, and the first two tracks don't dispell that notion. The first track is desparately trying to sound mysterious and intellectual, with mumbled vocals and distored female vocal loops. The second track, "One More Murder," is their Message Song, where they try to end gun violence in their home of New Orleans forever through a song that tells people that it's bad. Like most Message Songs, it just ends up sounding turgid and silly in retrospect.

Then something happens. It's almost as if frontman Kevin Griffin really wanted to be a Serious Artist, doing electronically looped songs and songs that would blow your mind, but he just couldn't hold back his inner songsmith any longer. "At the Stars" is a lush, joyous, singalong of a song, three minutes of pop perfection that he follows up with two more catchy pop tunes, "Like It Like That" and "Alison Foley."

The rest of the album shifts back and forth between solid songwriting chops to electronic, Serious Artist pieces. No matter what, he can't keep away from those hooks, those dreadful, awful, wonderful, earworm-y hooks. It's almost like you can hear Griffin fighting himself:
"I know I have to prove that I'm a true artist, but dang if that hook doesn't sound pretty! But, no, I have to be an artist. How can you call yourself an artist if people actually like your music? But, oh, that chorus would be perfect here!"
The whole album switches back and forth like that, from electronic-based tracks back to catchy pop numbers and back again. If it sounds awful, the surprise is that it really isn't. It actually sounds like an artist trying something new and succeeding repeatedly, then retreating to safer ground when things get too scary.

That dichotomy can be best heard in the last two tracks, the dreadfully titled "New Kind of Low a) Low b) Coma," and the similarly awfully-titled "Waxing or Waning?" "New Kind of Low" opens with a blistering guitar-rock track where he sing-speaks half of the self-deprecating lyrics, then remembers that this album is supposed to be serious, doggoneit. The second half breaks out in an electronica and trip-hop influenced part that wouldn't sound out of place as the background music of a femme fatale in a Bond film. Then, finally, he just says "screw it" and makes "Waxing or Waning?" a lush acoustic track with a gentle chorus to conclude the album.

Garden was not a successful album commercially, and Better Than Ezra would get dropped from their label after its poor performance. They're still making albums and they have a few more minor hits under their belt, but none have been as adventurous as Garden. It's almost as if, chastened by their reach exceeding their grasp, they retreated into a shell from which they're not ready to emerge anytime soon.

Still, a wildly ambitious album desperate to prove something important that got quickly forgotten by the public at large but still managed to be pretty good? That sounds Criminally Overlooked to me.