It might not rank with the best of the 1990s, but Blind Melon's debut holds up as a solid rock record that also happens to contain one of the best pop songs of the past two decades.
It starts with ringing guitar tones that glide through the air like ripples in a pond. Then comes a breezy, shuffling beat, propelled by finger-snap percussion and jaunty strums of an acoustic guitar. The vocals enter last — earnest, plaintive, a bit of distortion hinting at some inner darkness.
There you have the first few seconds of “No Rain”, the breakout hit by Blind Melon from the group’s 1992 self-titled debut. The song’s sunny groove was inescapable on rock radio and MTV, and it made Blind Melon a touchstone of the early alternative era. If a circa-1993 CD shelf had Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind on it, you could bet that Blind Melon’s disc was somewhere nearby.
Now Blind Melon joins many of its Clinton-era counterparts on the reissue train. Universal has just released an expanded edition of the album, complete with spruced-up sound and a bonus EP of previously unreleased tracks. I wouldn’t rank the album with the era’s best, but it’s a solid piece of work that contains one shining moment of genius. Let’s dig in.
The members of Blind Melon — guitarists Rogers Stevens and Christopher Thorn, bassist Brad Smith, drummer Glen Graham, and doomed frontman Shannon Hoon — came together in California, but all hailed originally from small towns in either the South or Midwest. It’s clear that they grew up on a steady diet of ’70s rock — you hear the proto-metal growl of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in a lot of these tracks, along with the sweaty, down-home guitar flourishes of Southern rock giants like Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band keeps the sound from devolving into empty retro-ism, though, by adding the rhythmic pulse of funk and a keen sense of melody. Topping everything off is Hoon’s blockbuster screech of a voice, a fiery mix of Robert Plant, Axl Rose, and Perry Farrell.
The better tracks on Blind Melon have an epic feel because of the band’s fondness for switching tempos and moods within a single song. Check out “Holyman”, which, after a pretty preamble of mandolin and chiming guitar, kicks into gear with propulsive rhythm guitar and drums, only to slow back down for the chorus. Or “Paper Scratcher”, which alternates between prickly hard rock and melodic pop. The single “Tones of Home” is another good track, despite having the most petulant lyrics on the album (“Nobody here really understands me”, Hoon whines).
But let’s get back to “No Rain”, which remains the high point of the album and, for my money, one of the best pop songs of the past two decades. The music is as gorgeous as ever, but listening to the song now, I find myself struck more by the naked desperation described in the lyrics. (Did all of us who sang along with “No Rain” back in the day realize just how dark it is?) As brought to vivid life by Hoon’s vocals, the lyrics depict an isolated man teetering on the edge of depression: “I don’t understand why I sleep all day / And I start to complain that there’s no rain / And all I can do is read a book to stay awake / And it rips my life away, but it’s a great escape”. The only thing that can save him, the man thinks, is connection with another human being — “Stay with me and I’ll have it made”. The song’s cathartic finish is both mournful and celebratory, leaving it tantalizingly unclear whether he ever finds the peace he’s looking for. “No Rain” still knocks me out.
Overall, then, Blind Melon contains one great song and a slew of others that range from good to very good. There’s no true clunker on the album, but as a whole it remains the work of a talented band that hadn’t quite hit its stride. Unfortunately, as most probably know, the band never got much of a chance to build on its debut. Shortly after the release of the divisive follow-up, Soup, in 1995, the troubled Hoon died of a drug overdose at the age of 28, effectively bringing Blind Melon to a halt. The surviving members recently re-formed with a new lead singer, but at this point, the first record remains the band’s key artistic statement. Which, given the strength of the work, ain’t the worst thing in the world.
Blind Melon has been remastered for this release, and while I wouldn’t call the new sound revelatory, it does feel like an improvement. The music sounds warmer, with a heavier, but not overwhelming, bass presence. Also on board is the previously unreleased five-song Sippin’ Time Sessions EP, the band’s first professional recordings. You get early versions of three album tracks — “Dear Ol’ Dad”, “ Tones of Home”, and “Seeds to a Tree” — along with “Soul One” (a version of which appeared on the collection of B-sides and rarities released after Hoon’s death) and “Mother”. It’s not essential listening, and I expect some fans will be disappointed there isn’t better unreleased material here. Others, of course, will probably be listening to “No Rain” too many times to care.