Monday, September 15, 2008

You Know, If the Byrds Wrote Songs (Volume 2)

When grunge broke in the early 90's, I was but a lad listening to whatever my brother blared in the room next door, reading the t-shirts at school, and generally trying to keep up. Sure, I thought Nirvana was unassailably cool, but their Importance was lost on me, the eight year-old. I waded through the pop-cultural tidal wave, using these precious few factors to determine if I actually liked a band:

1) Had I heard any of their songs and (if so) did they annoy me?
2) Did I like the kids who wore their t-shirts?

Nirvana and Pearl Jam Kids were generally okay. Soundgarden Kids usually had anger issues, but were also slightly cooler. Red Hot Chili Peppers Kids were alright, but not really my style. I might get invited to a Chili Pepper Kid birthday party, for example, but there were only even odds that I'd feel comfortable attending. Alice in Chains Kids, on the other hand, were not going to invite me to their birthday parties, and probably weren't having birthday parties, and if I was somehow invited to their birthday parties I'd assume it took place in a windowless cell and usually ended with wrestling matches. I wasn't friends with Alice in Chains Kids and (needless to say) was genuinely afraid of the Nine Inch Nails Kids a few years later.

Which is to say, I was aware of what was going on, and liked many of the contemporary bands, but not really for reasons related to music (that came a few years later). The lone exception to this rule?

The Gin Blossoms.

I've mentioned the Gin Blossoms in this space before, with (surprisingly) vitriolic responses. While they've always been a sleeper favorite of mine, eight year-old Chris LOVED the Gin Blossoms. I couldn't have told you what they looked like, or where they were from. I didn't own any of their records or merchandise, and nobody I knew wore Gin Blososms t-shirts. I didn't seek them out. I just loved them whenever they came on 96X.

At the time, I thought that I liked them because they talked about driving around town ("Hey Jealousy") and bus-stop drama ("Found Out About You") and a girl named Allison ("Allison Road"). My girlfriend's name was Allison, and I thought the Gin Blossoms had appeared out of nowhere to write songs specifically for me and my 3rd grade romance.

Now I realize that I was pre-disposed to liking them. They were the first contemporary (read: cool) band that sounded like my parents' music. They were jangly and harmonic (the Byrds) and uber-poppy (Rubber Soul Beatles) and specialized in sad songs that sound sunny and optimistic (Big Star). From birth, I had heard all their greatest influences. Now they had arrived and I loved them for different (but equally valid) reasons.

While "Hey Jealousy" remains their biggest hit, "Til I Hear It From You" got just as much love from 96X, and became my personal favorite. At the time, I loved it because (for some reason) it sounded like fall. Fall is unrelentingly awesome. Hence, I liked the way it sounded. Also, I loved it because the drums coming out of the guitar solo (that little bridge section, around 2:00) were cool. I loved it because "outside looking in" (2:10), as a musical moment, resonated with Eight Year-Old Chris. It felt like the truth.

Those are the reasons I loved the song.

I found out some years later that--not only were the Gin Blossosm pre-destined to be my favorite band as an eight year-old--but "Til I Hear It..." was pre-destined to be my favorite song by them. Why?

1) Sometimes, the sonic effect of a record matches what it feels like to be in one place at one time. A friend who lives in Manhattan swears that The Strokes took off in NYC not because of their songwriting but because of their record's production. He claims that Is This It, for whatever reason, just sounded like Manhattan in 2001. Well, all the Gin Blossoms' records (including "Til I Hear It From You") were recorded in Memphis. And to me, Memphis in the early 90's just sounded like "Til I Hear It From You." As a kid I knew instinctively that it was familiar and resonant...I didn't realize that it was recorded months earlier, ten miles from my house.

But what was an Arizona band doing at Ardent Studios in the early 90's?

2) They were Big Star-obsessed maniacs. Their own songwriting was so heavily influenced by Big Star that, to get their version of the Big Star sound, they recorded right at the source. They essentially traveled 2,000 miles, knocked on Ardent's door, and said "we'll have the Big Star, with everything, please."

But does "Til I Hear It From You" actually benefit from Big Star's songwriting influence?

3) My God, yes. What I want you to do is scroll down to the bottom of this entry, and click on Big Star's "Way Out West." Get to the 0:40 mark. Then cue up "Til I Hear It From You." Um, sound familiar? The Gin Blossoms didn't even change the key.

So what I'm trying to tell you is this:

I'm eight. I've spent the better part of my life listening to the Byrds and the Beatles and the Beach Boys and Memphis soul/rock bands on long car trips and liking girls named Allison and going to school. Now there's a band who 1) sounds like everything I liked about the Byrds/Beatles/Beach Boys/Memphis soul & rock bands my parents listen to but 2) who are new and cool and my parents don't listen to them and 3) write songs about driving and being cool and bus stops and liking girls named Allison. They are also obsessed with the musical heritage of the city I live in, devoted to recapturing its sound, and imitating its (arguably) greatest rock band. Also, their songs are gorgeous, wistful, sad, hopeful, jangly, and insanely memorable. Also, all of their singles seem to come out in the fall, and fall, as proven by science, is the best time of the year.

Eight year-old Chris never stood a chance.

I guess some folks recall the Gin Blossoms like a goofy piece of 90's trivia. Something to laugh through your nose at or pretend to like ironically. Like a slap bracelet. But listen to this song in September, late in the afternoon, put some Makers in a ginger ale, remember a girl named Allison and really tell me that this isn't what music is supposed to do.

Not livin without it,

Gin Blossoms - Til I Hear It From You.mp3

Big Star - Way Out West


ross k. said...

File me under Soundgarden/Alice in Chains kids. I never quite broke through to Nine Inch Nails kids, because of all the whips and chains and cages and vinyl and mesh shirts in the videos, but I did watch Headbangers Ball and listen to a fair amount of obscure metal, which is why I always laughed off Gin Blossoms and Counting Crows as whiny pansies. I just never liked them. These days I'm more open-minded and, usually, more polite about not insulting people's heroes, except on your blog. It sounds like you have all the right reasons for liking them; you explain it well. I could even be persuaded to warm up to them if I heard enough good songs, as with Dylan and the Stones. But I will probably continue to poke fun at them on your blog, no oftener than every six months or so.

ross k. said...

To be fair, there's a good chance that the Blossoms are better musicians than many of those metal bands...I guess all I'm really saying is that I would bet on Slayer or Suicidal Tendencies or Pantera over them in a fight.

I would also love to listen to any of those bands cover a Gin Blossoms song, or, better yet, for a bunch of them to compile an album of covers. Phil Anselmo growling "Found Out about You"? Tell me you're not at least curious.

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