We gave it a B
When is alternative rock not especially alternative? When the band in question is the Gin Blossoms. With their untucked shirts and forgot-my-comb haircuts, the Arizona band was marketed as underground for their sleeper-hit 1992 debut, New Miserable Experience. Yet on that record they found redemption in such old-school standbys as jangling guitars, power-pop melodies, and abject longing. Alternative music, which dominates the current pop scene like an overweight body surfer in a mosh pit, is many things — anguished, benumbed, angry. Romantic, however, isn’t one of them. The Blossoms’ contribution to last year’s hit-or-miss Empire Records soundtrack — the downcast but musically chipper ”Til I Hear It From You” — only cemented their wholly unhip reputation as puppy dogs in a pit bull world.
Congratulations I’m Sorry, the band’s long-overdue sophomore slab, barely tampers with Miserable‘s winsome formula. Songs like ”My Car” and the first single, ”Follow You Down,” are as unrelentingly melodic and strum-happy as the career-making hits ”Hey Jealousy” and ”Found Out About You.” They also have the same desperate urgency — the sense that the narrator is racing to communicate with that special someone before it’s too late. With its choirboy harmonies, and lyrics such as ”I’m like a broken record/That you can play,” ”As Long As It Matters” is a veritable wimp-rock symphony. Fans who feared the group’s songwriting would suffer without Doug Hopkins — the band’s former guitarist, who penned those hits and who committed suicide in 1993 — should be relieved.
A result, perhaps, of their relentless touring during the last few years, the Blossoms sound beefier on Congratulations I’m Sorry — the drums and guitars kick harder. They also attempt to add a little heft to their lyrics, but with less success. Only the Gin Blossoms could pen a song about the breakup of an illicit affair (”Whitewash”) and sound utterly unconvincing as bitter lovers. They’re more persuasive spouting generalized lyrics about frustrated love or singing about disgruntled college grads (the stampeding ”Day Job”) or self-pitying screwups (”My Car”).
The album does make one broader trend glaringly apparent. The inevitable watering down of alternative rock has taken place, with a softer, more melodic side coming through. The Gin Blossoms epitomize this alterna-pop. With their unthreatening air and Top 40 instincts, the Gin Blossoms are to Pearl Jam what Bon Jovi were to Metallica a decade ago.
As with lite metal, there’s something too generic about the Gin Blossoms. Some of these songs are sweet nothings. Wilson’s voice is clear and unaffected, but it’s also a little colorless, as are the Licks ‘R’ Us guitar solos that repeatedly crop up. (There’s a moment in ”Day Job” when guitarists Jesse Valenzuela and Scott Johnson go into a lickety-split arpeggio that’s very Spinal Tap — but, scarily, without the irony.) Like they did on New Miserable Experience, the group attempt to prove their authenticity with stabs at roots rock; the result, ”Memphis Time,” is as lame as the first album’s ”Cajun Song.” In the end, the Blossoms are better off embracing their personas as lovelorn middle American kids searching for pure and eternal devotion.
Judging by their two agreeable, hook-heavy albums, they may never be original or groundbreaking. But just as Green Day symbolized a belated punk conquest, the Gin Blossoms represent the final breakthrough of the post-Beatles pop of cult heroes like Marshall Crenshaw and Matthew Sweet. The Gin Blossoms are blander than either of those craftsmen, but their hearts are in the right place: love songs, nothing but earnest white-guy love songs.