[7 November 2002]
Okay, right off the bat, let’s acknowledge that it’s just not cool to like the Gin Blossoms. They were one of those bands that helped propel modern rock into the mainstream, wound up with gobs of commercial success, and were at one time a ubiquitous sound on corporate radio. So, today, if you try to hang onto any kind of indie cred at all, you’ll probably distance yourself from the Gin Blossoms faster than you can say “Alannis Morrissette”.
Before all the hype and glamour and success, the Gin Blossoms were just another rock band, strumming their strings and pushing their wares in the dusty Arizona night, and Tempe is hardly the kind of place that Hollywood mines for talent. If the Gin Blossoms formula of blues-rock, country twang, and Southwestern moodiness might have been responsible for some of the adult alternative spawn of the 1990s, it wasn’t without its peers. Following in R.E.M.‘s footsteps, the Gin Blossoms carved out their niche in the company of Cracker and the Judybats, and they left a commercial trail that would only benefit alt.country acts like Wilco and the Jayhawks in years to come.
But all credibility aside, the Gin Blossoms managed, in their short career, to produce one incredible album in New Miserable Experience. Dusty, alcohol-soaked, nervous, emotional, tattered and a little broken down, New Miserable Experience laid out a heavy dose of pathos while wrapping it up in tightly contained guitar licks, intricate melodies, and the wistfully engaging voice of Robin Wilson. The two chart hits, “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You”, are the most ubiquitous songs associated with the Gin Blossoms, the whole album is a solid affair, carried along by songs like “Lost Horizons”, “Mrs. Rita”, “Hands Are Tied”, and “29”. Today, the sound is almost too familiar to really objectively gauge the album in comparison to 1992 standards, but it remains a simple pleasure, a straight-up rock album that’s hooky, slickly crafted, and is suffused with the kind of accessibility that belies its “modern rock” origins.
In addition, the Gin Blossoms are touched, sadly, by a classic rock and roll story. Although Wilson and guitarist Jessie Valenzuela both share writing credits for various tracks on New Miserable Experience, the ghosts that haunted the band were the tracks written by Doug Hopkins. A founding member of the band, Hopkins penned “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You”, the two tracks that struck the deepest chord with the public and helped propel the Gin Blossoms to stardom. Unfortunately, his depression and his alcoholism took their toll on the band just at the moment that they were recording their big breakthrough, and Hopkins was kicked out of the group. Going one step farther than Syd Barrett, just as the Gin Blossoms began to rise to the top, Hopkins committed suicide. Everyone wondered if the Gin Blossoms could continue without the songwriting talents of Hopkins once it came time to record again. Like Toad the Wet Sprocket without Glen Phillips, the Gin Blossoms without Hopkins never completely recaptured that spirit, despite continuing to write and perform with success for a few years.
A decade after the original release of New Miserable Experience, time has seen the Gin Blossoms rocket to the top, peak out, break up, and, recently, reform. As an anniversary mark, and to commemorate the return of the Gin Blossoms to the active music scene, Universal and A&M have decided to re-master and repackage NME, upping the ante by making it a two-disc set, with disc one being the original album in its original track order, and the second disc being a compilation of rarities that only the most dedicated Gin Blossoms fans would already own.
In some respects, it’s a strange ploy. After NME, the Gin Blossoms only released one more proper album, 1996’s Congratulations… I’m Sorry, before splitting up, and the greatest hits of those two albums had already been collected in one place on 1999’s Outside Looking In: The Best of the Gin Blossoms. In addition, fans of the band are almost guaranteed to already own a copy of NME, which is by far the better of their two albums. However, with a self-produced 1989 album, Dusted, and a 1991 EP, Up and Crumbling, both predating the release of New Miserable Experience and both difficult to find, it’s the second disc of rarities and live tracks that makes this Deluxe Edition worth the money.
It kicks off with three tracks from Dusted, and as competition for the recent re-release of this extremely rare record, it makes sense. A good deal of Dusted wound up on NME, and what didn’t wound up on Up and Crumbling, whose non-NME tracks also appear on the Deluxe Edition bonus disc. So, unless you’re a completist collector, you only lose two songs by purchasing the Deluxe Edition. What you do get here is enough to show that back in the early days, the Gin Blossoms had a bit more bite and brought as much rock as pop. “Slave Dealer’s Daughter” and “Fireworks” are barnburners, thick with up-tempo blues-rock guitar, and rootsy enough to fit into local’s night at the watering hole. “Keli Richards” and “Angels Tonight” both show off Hopkins’ penchant for jangly power-pop and wistful ballads, while “Something Wrong” and “Just South of Nowhere” show off Valenzuela’s incredible sense of merging rock hooks with country flavors.
The bonus disc also includes a previously unreleased roots-rock NME album outtake, “Blue Eyes Bleeding”, which sounds a little bit unfinished in its abrupt ending, but shows a roadhouse side of the band that adds some depth to their overall image. It’s the post-Hopkins songs from the Shut Up and Smoke EP that show exactly what was lost with Hopkins’ dismissal and suicide. Penned primarily by Wilson, there’s a mellow, Southwestern folksiness to these songs (and on the instrumental “Cold River Dick” a simplistic country tone that is a pale reflection of “Cajun Song”) that robs the Gin Blossoms of that little bit of edge that made them fit into the last vestiges of the modern rock scene. However, the addition of a cover of the Beatles/Neil Innes track “Number One” (essentially “Twist and Shout” with re-written lyrics), and a cover of Alex Chilton’s “Back of a Car”, both previously unreleased, make the inclusion of this period of the band’s career worthwhile.
But the real gem for fans and collectors on the Deluxe Edition is the inclusion of six live tracks taken from a 1993 Solana Beach, California show. If anything, these tracks prove that, eve without Hopkins performing with the band, the Gin Blossoms live show was full of fun and energy. Wilson’s voice doesn’t sound quite as polished and smooth as it does on the studio tracks, but it’s also more vibrant, obviously enjoying the crowd interaction. And where the studio production sands the Gin Blossoms’ songs down to clean edges, live they’re loud and raucous, with the full force of the guitar-driven songs coming to the fore. Live versions of “Hold Me Down”, “Hey Jealousy”, and “Mrs. Rita” are vigorous enough, but the band really kicks loose for “29”. Adding to the fun are two live covers, one a surprisingly well done and funky version of “Movin’ On Up” (yes, the theme song from The Jeffersons), and a rockin’ out cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”, much to the crowd’s delight.
With 22 bonus tracks, in addition to the original NME pressing’s 12 tracks, the Deluxe Edition is both a worthy buy and a nearly complete retrospective of the early years of a solid and successful band. You could argue that as much of a retrospective as New Miserable Experience (Deluxe Edition) is, it also represents something of a challenge to the reunited Gin Blossoms. Wilson’s leanings toward sweeter, poppier songs might make for good adult contemporary fare, but without the solid rock backing of their earlier years, any new material will probably sound weaker by comparison. Having set the bar fairly high with their debut, ten years later the Gin Blossoms are going to have to work hard on a third release, especially with this re-release bringing their prior material back into the spotlight. But for the listeners and fans, the Deluxe Edition represents a small piece of well-deserved nostalgia, filled with some more-than-likely undiscovered gems along the way.