By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
The last time the country really heard from Garza was 2001's cynical Overdub. On the album, his second and final for major label Lava/Atlantic Records, there were already signs of emotional strain. "Congratulations, you're alive/You've done your damage/You've done your time/Not much left to do/Not much left," sang the man who once wrote ditties about fish sticks with his band Twang Twang Shock a Boom. The album's dour lyrics were kept in check by an addictive groove that didn't leave much time for armchair psychoanalysis. But Overdub sold only about a third as many copies as Garza's major-label debut, This Euphoria, and Lava/Atlantic dismissed him from his contract.
"I block it out," says Garza about his major-label demise. "It was so long ago. Now every town I go to people come up to me and tell me they love the stuff that's on this record or that record--and that's a beautiful thing. And that's what I focus on in order to keep moving forward. I just hate getting into those discussions that are like South by Southwest panels. I don't need any more of those. I'm over being dropped, and it wasn't that big of a deal anyway. And the new stuff that I'm doing is what fuels me. Playing 'junior record executive guy' is nowhere near as fun as talking about [something as boring as] what gauge guitar strings I play."
Garza's even more hesitant to discuss the recent end to his four-year marriage, but you can hear the emotional effects of both severed relationships throughout A Strange Mess of Flowers. From 1989's simple "While My Hair Grows Long" to noise experiments recorded in 2003 like "Kickit," the box set offers a diverse selection of songs that are less a summary of Garza's career than a window into what's been going on inside his head.
"The reason the box set is called A Strange Mess of Flowers is that the songs are all part of a big bouquet that I'm proud of. Some of them are weeds, and some are lilies or lilacs," Garza says. "I think I was trying to not try too hard when picking the songs to include. There are moments where there's just complete distortion and mayhem followed by Reggie Rueffer's amazing, beautiful violin playing on 'For Keeps.' I think that that combination's interesting, and I hope other people do, too."
Unfortunately, this juxtaposition occasionally results in the weeds overshadowing the flowers. Selections like "KBRN" and "Theme" emphasize overdriven vocals and overly processed drum machines at the expense of melody; they're emotionally charged, but jarring. The nonsensical folly of "My Homey Don't Name Names" and the insipid "Dirty Man" are merely annoying. And while "Fleshwound" offers the moving couplet "Every time I see you it hurts deeper/And even though I'm still lost I feel near you," its delivery is hindered by odd keyboard burbles and distracting vocal effects. This constant cycle of ups and downs is further reinforced by the half-finished nature of some songs, left intentionally raw because, Garza says, "production is sometimes just makeup to cover up something that isn't fully formed. Some of the best stuff on the box set is from a handheld cassette recorder."
But when Garza is spinning out his unique Latin-influenced, tight pop songs or vulnerable ballads, there's no one like him. The poignant "My Sister" and "Overwhelmed" are equally capable of conjuring tears or dance moves. The bright reworking of "One Drop" (re-recorded because Garza lost the original master tape) and the sweet, previously unreleased "In Eclipse" are alone well worth the box set's $30 price tag.
These contrasts are even more evident on the DVD. Without a customary menu screen, the video starts as soon as the disc is inserted and mostly catches Garza alone and away from the stage. A video for "Black and Tan" shot in the parking lot of Los Angeles' famous cabaret theater Largo shows him warming up, playing a song with no one listening. It's an intimate moment as he sings while twisting toward and away from the parked cars that fill the lot. He's performing for himself, but there's obviously a crowd waiting inside.
Fortunately the box-set format gives Garza the ability to explore these emotional conflicts and contrasts in as much detail as he needs, and he takes full advantage of the opportunity. The collection stretches to 71 tracks and includes recording notes for each song and an insightful biography of the artist written by his brother Joel (who, along with other members of the Garza family, is helping fund the project). The absence of any of Garza's Lava/Atlantic recordings is no doubt for legal reasons, and not surprisingly there's no mention of the work Garza's done since Overdub as a producer and musician for a surprising variety of musical artists including Hanson, Rhett Miller, Latin artist DJ Kane, Juliana Hatfield and a forthcoming solo album from Toad the Wet Sprocket's Glen Phillips. The story yet to be told is if this box set--this catharsis of songs--and this new flurry of activity will be enough to help him get over recent upsets and back into his groove.