After three albums with Elektra, and after steadily declining sales for every album since their debut, Better Than Ezra hopped to an indie label for their fourth album Closer. And while many have said that this shift helped them produce their most relaxed album, an album they always wanted to make, there is still something naggingly wrong about it.
At their best, Better Than Ezra could be seen as the band who rightfully inherited the torch of ‘80s southern power-poppers and jangle rockers before them (think the dB’s, Let’s Active, Connells, 54-40, early R.E.M.). And Better Than Ezra quite often do sound like those bands in all the right ways. But they have an Achilles Heel: they want so badly to sell albums that they’re willing to change their music to do so.
Case in point: Better Than Ezra’s debut Deluxe was a pretty good jangle-pop album, it produced three huge alternative radio hits, and lots of people bought it. But after that thrust the band into the mainstream, they followed it up with the much trendier Friction, Baby, an album which tried to tie in the heavier post-punk and post-grunge guitar sound popular in the mid-‘90s. Not coincidentally, it didn’t sell as well as the debut, and even less surprisingly it was much weaker than the debut.
There was a break of a few years before the band returned again with How Does Your Garden Grow?, and even if one missed the forced trend chasing of Friction, Baby, then they certainly couldn’t help but notice now. How Does Your Garden Grow? attempted to merge a very diverse batch of musical styles popular in the mid-to-late ‘90s, from Britpop to electronica and, well, Radiohead (who, at this point, practically have a genre of their own). In fact, the edgy, futuristic cover art was an almost direct knock-off of The Bends (the translucent faces on the covers of both albums are nearly identical). However, despite all this musical pillaging, How Does Your Garden Grow? got it right. In fact, Better Than Ezra managed to toss in an array of styles they had no business touching in the first place and created a crazy Patchwork Sally of an album that, in reality, was probably their best.
But the problem was again that they were trying too hard. This wasn’t the natural evolution of a growing band, this was the work of a band shamelessly genre hopping, spending time with whatever was coolest at any given moment.
And now with Closer, the band’s fourth album, you’d expect that to change. It seemed that, since Better Than Ezra was on a major label and kept having a difficult time maintaining sales, that the strong arm of A&R was probably guiding them into this forced trendiness. And now that they’re away from Elektra, they’d probably be left to their own devices, done fighting the charts and ready to make an album for their fans.
Erm, well, sort of. Closer does, in many ways, live up to that promise. Some tracks benefit wonderfully. The opener, “Misunderstood”, is a textbook example of the classic American power-pop anthem: with chunky guitars and “oh yeah"s and “all right"s smothered all over it, and it’s hard to go wrong with that. For a more innovative number, look to the soulful “Rolling” (featuring Toddy). And the title track is a sugary, affecting ballad that ranks as a highlight, as does the album’s closer, the bouncy “I Do”. Kevin Griffin’s singing has also never been in such good form, especially on the pretty “Get You In” (even if he does briefly use that creepy Cher effect). Heck, many of the tracks in between range from decent filler to pretty good guitar pop.
What hurts the album, however, is that damn nagging need to be cool or fit in somehow. And Better Than Ezra have never done it so shamelessly as they do here, either, on the album’s two tracks featuring DJ Swamp. As if that wasn’t a blatant enough attempt to be like every other male-fronted alt-schlock combo out there, they produce one truly awful song in “Extra Ordinary”. Aping the very worst of Sugar Ray’s faux-reggae and mixing it with a sub “One Week”-style Barenaked Ladies rap, the song is not only bad, it’s quite possibly one of the worst singles released all year. And not only does it awkwardly musically reference all of this, becoming an immediate parody of itself and the pop radio version of when Danny Tanner tried to belt out “My Generation” on “Full House”, but it actually lyrically references these things as well. There’s even the line “Just like that Barenaked Ladies song / Hot like wasabi when I’m next to your body”. They name check AC/DC, Madonna, and Bobby Fisher. It sounds like that blasted LFO song about Abercrombie and Fitch and spoiled Chinese food. It’s really that bad.
And it’s no great surprise that “Extra Ordinary” was chosen as the album’s single, either. It’s so tightly packed with every overused rock cliché, every trend that’s three years past that Better Than Ezra just now are getting, that it reads almost exactly like a commercial. But unlike any of the songs on How Does Your Garden Grow?, an album that cherry-picked just as many already-passed musical fads, “Extra Ordinary” is so lyrically and musically precarious that the band’s commercial and artistic insecurity is worn on their sleeve, for all to see.
And that is truly what is disappointing about Closer, because if the CD player is programmed to just skip a couple of songs, then one can believe that Better Than Ezra really did hop off of a major label and create the assured album they’ve always wanted to make. They really are a much better band than they’re typically given credit for. And the consistency of most of the songs on Closer could be a promising sign that Better Than Ezra may be headed in the right direction, and may still have a great critical and even commercial life ahead of them. They may still create an album that doesn’t worry about sales or charts and shows the band has survived the corporate rock machine. But instead, at least for now, those few tracks serve to show that Better Than Ezra didn’t escape the corporate world without a few bruises.