He sat in the cab of a green Isuzu pickup in front of the girls dormitory, dressed in a pair of rumpled cargo shorts and a thrift-store T-shirt. He was waiting to take a girl to the Flaming Lips show. She was three years his senior and had introduced him to the Lips, even loaned him a copy of their newest record, The Soft Bulletin.
That scrawny kid was me during my freshman year of college. The girl -- a very hip girl I didn't stand a chance with -- was using me for a ride to Trees. I didn't care. I felt cool by association, even though there was nothing cool about me, which I proved later on in the evening.
At first, I liked The Soft Bulletin, but it was with much trepidation. It was weird compared to the music I liked most, and the thought of immersing myself in these new sounds and ideas was like staring down into the deep end of a swimming pool. What happened in the truck on the way to the show left me with a nasty scar. I asked her if she wanted any music for the drive and pointed at some CDs between us. She thumbed through the pile with a look of disgust on her face.
"You like Dave Matthews Band?"
With that one simple question looming in my head for weeks, I questioned for the first time if Dave Matthews was any good. I decided he wasn't. I also lumped in a handful of other bands I liked, including Third Eye Blind and Counting Crows, citing their lack of cool compared to the music this girl had turned me onto. For a decade, I've maintained my stance on these artists, but now, I'm ready to stare that decision in the face and take an objective look at records from the bands I had shunned some 15 years ago. Are they really that bad?
Gin Blossoms, New Miserable Experience The production and instrumentation certainly leave this record with a glaring time stamp. That and the hit songs "Hey Jealousy," "Found Out About You" and "Allison Road," which played continuously on alt-rock radio throughout the '90s, keep this record firmly in the nostalgic part of the mind. Take away those faults and you have a solid set of songs, many of which could be re-recorded today with more of a country lean and have a completely fresh sound. The record's biggest fault is that it's overly sincere from start to finish. Most of this album's hits were penned by Doug Hopkins, who was fired shortly after its release and subsequently committed suicide, ending the band's future chances of writing another good record.
Bush, Sixteen Stone When you've got heaps of angst, energy and a moderately talented band, what do you do with it? On Sixteen Stone, Bush's debut, they don't really answer the question. The record sounds amazing, though. Big, roomy drums and buzzsaw guitars put the British act's sound in close proximity to that of their stateside counterparts (Nirvana, Pearl Jam), but lyrically they never hit the mark. "Cupboard is empty we really need food / Summer is winter and you always knew" on "Little Things" is one of many examples of lead singer Gavin Rossdale's indecipherable lyricism. The melodies are big, except when they're not. The hits became popular for their massive choruses ("Comedown," "Glycerine"), but aside from those, the record is just filler.
Sugar Ray, 14:59 Sugar Ray's 14:59 came out during an unstable time. The biggest problem of the era: rap and rock were getting a little too friendly. The results were terrible songs from West Coast beach bands like Sublime and Crazytown, whose "Butterfly (Come My Lady)" signaled the point at which rap/rock should have been cited as a crime against humanity. Sugar Ray's 14:59, however, was collateral damage. I used to cringe at songs like "Every Morning" and "Someday," but listening to them again now, they come off as almost perfect pop songs. Similarly, "Falls Apart" could be recorded successfully in a number of different genres, namely shoegaze, where its sugary arrangement could be treated with even more saccharine. That's not to say it's a perfect album; indulgent rock numbers only serve to make the hits look even better, but I can say I like this record more now than ever before.
Third Eye Blind, Third Eye Blind "Semi-Charmed Life" is one of the more annoying songs written in the last 20 years. So is "Jumper," and you could probably throw in a few more tracks from this multi-platinum debut from Third Eye Blind. Singer Stephan Jenkins' mouthful-of-lyrics songwriting and snot-nosed yelping are difficult to look past. However, there are some really solid songs on this record, too. "How's It Going to Be" is the perfect melancholy pop track to have on hand in case of a break-up. "Graduate" and "Losing A Whole Year," on the other hand, are enjoyable pop/rock ramp-ups. The album's last four tracks are an epic montage of angsty teen balladry. As annoying as it gets in sections, it shouldn't be shunned entirely.
Counting Crows, August and Everything After Of all the albums I'd chosen to shun, this one deserved it the least. Solid songwriting, arrangements and production make this the Counting Crows' best album. Each subsequent record got progressively worse, which is why most of the band's critics have a tainted view of their debut. There is very little filler between pop gems like "Omaha," "Round Here" and the band's mega-hit, "Mr. Jones," but there is a problem of too much sweetness in certain sections. The biggest issue, though, is with singer Adam Duritz. "Rain King" is worth a skip altogether just to miss Duritz whining the word "yeah" at the very end. But overall, the songwriting holds up nicely.
Dave Matthews, Under the Table and Dreaming This is a debut from a band of exceedingly talented players. The contributor who shines the most, though, is producer Steve Lillywhite, who does his best to tidy the band and sprinkle fairy dust where he could. The result is a bit like a well-swept dirt floor. The rest of the record shows bandleader Dave Matthews cramming as much possible vocal goofiness into each lyrical bit as the remaining players selfishly show off their jazz chops. Whether it's the ambiguous lyrics, annoying vocal delivery or jumbled instrumentation, each song is a party crashed by almost all of its players.