Gin Blossoms – Mixed Reality
Of all the earnest jangle-rock bands to sprout up in the wake of R.E.M., Arizona’s Gin Blossoms are one of the few whose songs still resonate deeply with me. Though at the time I didn’t pay it much mind, I’ve since come to cherish 1992’s (eventually) inescapable New Miserable Experience as an unflashy yet genuinely affecting gem, equal parts life-affirming Southwestern sunshine and spiraling personal anguish. Its best tracks tend to be sad songs that sound upbeat and hopeful. Original lead guitarist Doug Hopkins was one of the band’s primary songwriters in their early years, pouring his drunken despair into NME’s biggest hits, “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You,” as well as lesser-known gut-punchers such as album opener “Lost Horizons” and full-throttle rocker “Hold Me Down” (written with lead singer Robin Wilson). That last one was one of Hopkins’ few on NME that weren’t re-recorded versions of faster takes from the Blossoms’ independently released 1989 debut album, Dusted. By the time they were tracking their A&M debut, Hopkins was a full-fledged alky who could barely function during the sessions; forced out of the lineup by the label before the album hit store shelves, Hopkins committed suicide a little over a year later, mere weeks after getting a gold record for “Hey Jealousy.”
Such tragedy might’ve doomed a lesser unit, but guitarist Jesse Valenzuela was already writing about half the band’s songs, Wilson was noticeably coming into his own (“Allison Road” is his; “Until I Fall Away” was a Wilson/Valenzuela co-write); and Hopkins’ replacement Scott Johnson would soon begin contributing to the band’s repertoire. Okay, well, maybe the Gin Blossoms were doomed, at least temporarily, because New Miserable Experience’s follow-up, 1996’s Congratulations I’m Sorry, “only” went platinum and has forever existed in the shadow of its smash predecessor. Despite its Top Ten hit “Follow You Down,” the Grammy-nominated “As Long As It Matters,” kickass album tracks including “Day Job” and “Whitewash” and (on some copies, at least) their awesome Marshall Crenshaw co-write, “Til I Hear It From You,” there’s admittedly nothing on it as emotionally powerful and deeply personal as Hopkins’ old songs. But it’s pretty darned good, especially considering the chain of events the first half of the decade had brought upon them. Still, the Blossoms split up a year after its release.
But not for long. By 2002, they were out playing again (the core of Wilson, Valenzuela, founding bassist Bill Leen, Johnson and a succession of drummers – always a refreshingly fun live band, tambourines for everyone!), and have quietly released three albums in the years since. Recorded (like NME and Congratulations) at Ardent Studios in Memphis with producer John Hampton, 2006’s Major Lodge Victory is every bit as good as, maybe better than, Congratulations I’m Sorry. By contrast, 2010’s No Chocolate Cake is rather lacking. By this point, the band seemed regrettably content in their inevitable position as a ‘90s nostalgia act, their music providing a familiar feel-good soundtrack for middle-aged parents on a rare evening out of the house, none of whom had any interest in having their time wasted and patience tested by new songs anyhow.
But Mixed Reality, their sixth album, released last summer, proves that the Gin Blossoms aren’t yet ready to be deemed a mere oldies act, even if no one other than their most devoted fans are likely to care. It’s as inspired and invigorated as anything they’ve recorded since they were on A&M’s hot list. It may sound quaint for a band to be playing this sort of sincere power-pop/heartland rock in the midst of all the soulless pop, rap, dance-beat country and EDM that has overtaken everything like thick creeping vines, but the Gin Blossoms have never given a shit about being trendy, to their credit. If you have a soft spot for melodic, melancholy, harmony-filled rock ‘n’ roll, your options are pretty limited nowadays anyway. It’s not like you’re gonna catch the Plimsouls and the Reivers at the Moonshadow next weekend or anything.
Trading Ardent for Kernersville, North Carolina’s Fidelitorium, with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter behind the board and Peter Holsapple on keyboards, the Gin Blossoms unabashedly bring it back to their other forefathers’ home turf, and the match-up proves to be both comfortable and exceptional. Wilson’s uplifting album opener, “Break,” serves immediate notice that the band isn’t resting on its laurels. “Face the Dark” alights with a ringing guitar that could’ve been lifted from a Reckoning outtake. “Angels Fly” (co-written by Valenzuela and frequent latter-day Gin Blossoms collaborator Danny Wilde, of the Rembrandts) could’ve easily been a radio hit for the band in ’95. Johnson’s “Girl on the Side” reigns in the tempo a bit for a glimpse at the hazards of being taken for granted. Another soft spot, Valenzuela and Wilde’s “Wonder,” could just as readily be about Hopkins as it could some long lost lover or relative: Out of the blue I hear the strains of some old mournful song/ I feel your presence on the breeze, and then it’s all but gone.
Tacked on the backstretch, Mixed Reality would’ve been stronger had “The JFK Shit Show” (basically an “Underneath the Bunker”-type throwaway) and “The Devil’s Daughter” been lopped off. But the album’s best song is saved for last. Written by Leen, “Mega Pawn King” comes closest to the wistful heights of Hopkins’ classics than anything the band’s done since his death. It’s basically a tour through one’s hometown (let’s assume it’s Tempe, from which Leen and the band hail, but it could be any Southwestern town) seen through the eyes of a native who’s witnessed years of deterioration, decay, demographic shifts and transformation. If you’re hungry, you’re in luck since the border’s wide open/ If you’re tired there’s a park, only if you dare/ Behind the thrifts and the Mega Pawn King/ Behind the “checks cashed here.” The sadness is clear, yet with the chorus he strives to remain nonjudgmental: Your declining neighborhood looks beautiful the way it should/ Wouldn’t change you at all, wouldn’t make you brand new. As the song chimes toward its close, he reminds himself: Don’t resist it, don’t resent it/ Don’t remember, don’t forget it/ There are places that are fine without me around. OK, well, realistically I could do with a little less resignation and a little more righteous disgust about all that rot. Still, as sung by Wilson channeling his best Lifes Rich Pageant-era Michael Stipe, it makes for an incredible song, easily among the band’s best.
For the Gin Blossoms to make an album this impressive in 2018 is sort of unbelievable, frankly. But they did it. And they did it knowing that it’s not gonna get anywhere near gold, let alone platinum. They did it because they take pride in what they do, and they respect their fans that have stuck with them in the lean years. God willing, maybe they’ll actually earn a few new ones with this.