Every summer I keep my ears on alert for an album that I know I’ll be able to listen to over and over again. It has to be the kind of album that complements a brilliantly sunny day, perfect for driving around with the windows rolled down, sunglasses in place and stereo setting the pace of the day.
After my first listen, I knew Too Much Stereo would be my summer 2000 disc. Filled with the Urge’s infectious blend of funk, rock, ska, and soul, Too Much Stereo gives off such a sunny, upbeat vibe that it’s impossible not to tap your foot and bob your head in time. After holding onto this disc for over a month, listening as frequently as I could stand to, none of the original luster has worn off the tunes and I know that my initial reaction would hold true until the leaves turned.
The Urge hails from St. Louis, Missouri and has been increasing the size of their fan base since 1987. After putting out a few independent singles, EPs, and LPs, the Urge were picked up by Epic’s Immortal label, which re-released the band’s self-produced Receiving the Gift of Flavor in 1995. Master of Styles followed in 1998, giving up their first semi-hit radio single, “Jump Right In,” with 311’s Nik Hexum on guest vocals. The connection with 311 is no accident in terms of the Urge’s success to date. The Urge opened for 311 on a national tour, helping give the band an exposure to a national audience who gave them a warm reception. With 311 hailing from Nebraska, the Urge were practically mid-Western neighbors in St. Louis. And on top of all that, the Urge play music that falls somewhere between 311 and Fishbone, making them easily accessible to 311’s large fan base. The two band still maintain a sort of musical alliance, and the Urge have been particularly vocal in their appreciation for the helping hand that 311 offered over their career.
But the Urge isn’t just another 311 knock-off band, and Too Much Stereo finally distinguishes the Urge as a band with their own musical spin. Only vocalist Steve Ewing and bassist Karl Grable are founding members of the band, but the more recent additions of guitarist Jerry Jost, drummer John Pessoni, sax man Bill Reiter and the double trombone force of Matt Kwiatkowski and Todd Painter have given the Urge the full, complex sound that emerged on Receiving the Gift of Flavor. Musically, each instrument seems to be an important player in the mix, although the guitar work of Jost and Grable’s bass really stand out for me (of course, I’m spoiled by my love of the excellent horn section of Reel Big Fish). But beyond all the fine instrumentation on Too Much Stereo, Steve Ewing’s voice is something to make karaoke addicts drool. Displaying a great set of pipes and a lot of range, Ewing does something that really stands out among the rock, ska, hardcore, etc. set as of late: he actually sings! We’re talking whole melodies here! More than once as I’ve listened to this disc I’ve been reminded of Corey Glover of Living Colour (especially the Vivid-era).
It’s difficult for me to pick out which tracks are my favorites. The opener, “What Is This” is a jumpy hip-hop offering dropping enough names to make LFO proud. “Too Much Stereo,” the title track, maintains the upbeat, energetic movement of the album in spite of its theme of a relationship torn by arguments. My overall favorite is probably “Four Letters and Two Words,” even though this track is probably the most straightforward rock song on the disc and does less to blend various styles. Other songs of note include “Welcome To Gunville” and “Push On Like Flintstone.”
A few songs stray into familiar territory, like “I Go Home” and “Living on The Surface,” but even when they seemed overtly ordinary, I was still struck by how eerily the songs reminded me of album tracks from late Styx releases like Kilroy Was Here (a comparison I’m sure the Urge wasn’t intending, but nevertheless…). Some reviews of Too Much Stereo that I’ve come across have accused the Urge of faking depth by hiding in obscure and nonsensical lyrics. While the lyric sheet might not read like Shakespeare, listening to the songs conveys their meaning in almost ever case. Others have accused the album of being overproduced. What does this mean? Should I have to hear the twang of a guitar string against the neck or the scratches on the master tape? No. This is summertime music, with clean and clear quality behind every fluffy white cloud.
Too Much Stereo is a great album. It’s not a masterpiece against which the Urge should be judged from here in perpetuity. It’s not going to change the world. It might not even convert die-hard 311 fans who only care that Nik Hexum has a guest appearance on one of their other albums. There aren’t any songs about hydroponics and mushrooms after all. But if I can beat the 311 connection to death one last time, the Urge definitely “come original.”