Gin Blossoms cap off summer with a collection to cement, not uproot, its legacy as masters of 1990s pop-rock. A horn section makes a welcome debut.
Does the problematic “alternative rock” term apply to Gin Blossoms? There are those who would say "yes", and everyone’s favorite communal web-cyclopedia would seem to agree. While the phrase implies sending shaggy DJs into spasms with DIY ethos and a remote punk lineage, singer Robin Wilson and company were only ever “college rock” in the sense of sounding right at home at Big Ten watering holes. Only recently does the Arizona band feel like anything “different” from what’s going on in the rock universe. Tthe lyrics are not lascivious or lewd, the sound is nowhere near trendy lo-fi, and they have no use for glam alter egos or wild outfits. In a world of meat dresses, they’re serving theirs up medium with a side of sweet potatoes. They’ve also kicked the majors in favor of indie outposts, and the band’s choice of venues in 2010 is, let’s just say, a family-friendly alternative.
“If there’s a Ferris wheel on the horizon, there’s a Gin Blossoms show going on,” Wilson grinned during a 2008 performance in Naperville, Illinois. Playing the funnel cake circuit has forced the band to reckon with the playfully self-deprecating side of themselves always lurking just beneath the surface (think of “Hey Jealousy”’s famous line, “if you don’t expect that much of me / you might not be let down”). No Chocolate Cake, this latest offering, comes just weeks too late to be the album of the summer, but they leave seasonal blahs to the four-track bedroom brooders.
Gin Blossoms were always going big, but the arenas of the ’90s never suited them. The music wasn’t grandiose or masked in fashionable irony. Wilson never sported anything as dated as a throaty warble (looking at you, Hootie) or as wacky as Adam Duritz’s dreads. Rarely anything but straightforward, No Chocolate Cake is for an audience burned on political statements and conceptual baloney. Reinventing the wheel was never the Blossoms’ department. How could the group who penned “Found Out About You” even begin to construct a Kid A or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Their MO is a simple turn of phrase: If it ain’t broke, flaunt it.
After two decades, the most enduring thing about the Blossoms isn’t Jesse Valenzuela’s R.E.M.-lite guitars, but rather Wilson’s vocals. That distinctive hot-caramel voice hasn’t lost any of its sweetness over time. Put songs from 1989’s Dusted (if you’re that hardcore) on shuffle next to fresh gold like “Don’t Change For Me” or “Go CryBaby” and play the Pepsi Challenge. He sounds like he’s been slugging straight Mrs. Butterworth all these years.
Full disclosure: I was having my own new miserable experience in first grade when their major label debut blew up. This is only of note because Gin Blossoms are not a band with stratified listeners wearing you-weren’t-there snobbery like an ugly jacket. The loyalty to the Gin Blossoms Sound ensures few fan dropouts, only holdouts, and anyone who bought the Empire Records soundtrack at a Sam Goody won’t need convincing. If this is new to you, it’s a fantastic first serving.
Gin Blossoms draw from the same color palette they’ve always known, a lager brown with shades of grey thrown in for temperance. It’s admirably restrained music, nowhere near as riff-heavy as 1996’s “Day Job” hinted it could be. This isn’t a bad thing. Kudos to Wilson for not oversinging the hooks and ditching the glowing smirk of stopgap side project Gas Giants. For all the emphasis on comeback consistency, there’s little clock-punching on No Chocolate Cake. A fuel-injected horn section propels the exuberant “Dead or Alive on the 405,” which is the shot this band could’ve used on Major Lodge Victory, the 2006 reunion that got by on charm but still couldn’t help feeling lackluster and doughy. A nod to nostalgia-tripping doesn’t hurt either, with Wilson winking, “You play your hit from ’89 / I’ll sing mine from ’95.”
No Chocolate Cake snatches the baton from Major Lodge Victory, which pretended a decade-long hiatus didn’t happen, but this new record is better and stronger (if neither harder nor faster). “Miss Disarray” is easily the best slice of pure frosting since the Doug Hopkins days, and if its arching bottle rocket of a chorus doesn’t lift your spirits, then there’s not much hope for you. “Somewhere Tonight” imagines a rekindling with a former flame, but it could just as well be for the fans who’ve rushed past Tilt-A-Whirls for a spot at the stage. Despite constant touring, the fact remains that it’s the first Blossoms album in four years, following a 10- and four- year gap between the two discs before that. Pray for a short wait until Wilson gives us more headphone heart-to-hearts, because No Chocolate Cake sounds like the start of a late-career renaissance.
“Just give me something real / that I can lay my head on,” he croons with heavy eyes near the end. If it’s true that you get what you give, he can sleep soundly. This kind of comfort is nice for a change.