Audiophilia, Thoughts

I Can’t Quit You: Better Than Ezra

I have a certain fascination with the spoken word. If you’ve met me in person, chances are I have stored away some verbal tic to remember you by. I mentally keep track of the European verbal emphasis my best friend C picked up from her semesters overseas. I delight in the “s” sound my New Jersey husband turns into a “z” (salza, gazoline). This obsession probably has its origins in my intense crush for Cam Clarke, the voice actor who played in many of the cartoons I grew up watching in the late 80s and early 90s, and whose voice still makes me idiotically happy when I hear it.

I mention this preoccupation in trying to underline my bias: I am willing to forgive a lot if I like the way you sound. That is particularly true for the next band on the I Can’t Quit You list: Better Than Ezra. In the 90s, Better Than Ezra was a band that walked the thin line between cool & uncool. I remember reading rock mags, Spin in particular, that loved to trash them. Critics lumped them in with other post-grunge (or as one columnist called it “scrunge”) bands like Tonic, Candlebox and Bush. On the other hand “Desperately Wanting” was all over the radio & was a great song to turn up in the car. I remembering once being in my high school English class & comparing favorite CDs when one of the cool kids with his own fledgling band mentioned how much he loved “Desperately Wanting.” I felt vindicated.

But, to get back to my point, I don’t think the music wouldn’t have mattered much to me since I was completely captivated by lead singer Kevin Griffin’s Louisiana accent. Thick & tangle-y like a messy skein of yarn, I would gladly sit through a by-the-book cover of “Conjunction Junction” just to get ensnared by his accent winding through the spoken parts of the song. I was a smitten kitten. (Plus, he was drop dead sexy.)

Thankfully, though, Better Than Ezra made some good Southern-flavored rock, with songs that often seemed like the Louisiana heat had seeped into, intensifying the mood. I stuck with them through their first three albums until 2001 came around & the band released Closer, a scrappy little record released on a label smaller than Elektra, their previous distributor. BTE’s previous album How Does Your Garden Grow? was an aural collage of guitars, drums, strings, & electronic bleeps & bloops that didn’t chart well, causing Elektra to drop them. Closer was an attempt to carry on bravely without the big money behind them.

Re-listening to the CD eleven years later, I have to say that Closer doesn’t sound half-bad. I can remember thinking in 2001 that some of the songs sounded so awkward, that some of the instrumental parts were clearly tacked on after the fact. There are the particularly heinous scratch effects added to “Extra Ordinary” & “Recognize” by DJ Swamp. But, in 2012, I have hindsight enough to see that nu metal’s influence was still disorientingly pervasive at that time & can forgive a Random Scratch Guy appearing on the record.

Songs like “Closer” & “A Lifetime,” however, are examples of what Better Than Ezra did best: compose ambitious rock ballads where a Southern boy sings his sensitive heart out. I’d like to say that in my musical education Big Star preceded Better Than Ezra. But the truth is long before I pledged allegiance to Alex Chilton’s “Thirteen” or “Watch the Sunrise,” Kevin Griffin had a place in my heart first. How can you resist someone who can drawl out Laaaa-haaaa-eeyyye-eyyyyif & sound so damn heart-felt in every syllable?

In my opinion, Closer is not a bad CD, it’s just one that doesn’t really know where it’s going. The  classic transitional CD dilemma:  add songs that sound like the tried & true hits that gave the band radio airplay with are ones that sound “new & fresh” with varying results. Eleven years after the fact is a little too long, for me, to try & make friends, especially when I’ve never doubted the company of the other three albums. So despite Griffin’s hoodoo vocal love spell, Closer & I part ways with an amicable farewell, while I try to figure out how he made the words “a caramel-colored girl in a halter top” sound like a tongue-twister.

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