CD Review of Paper Empire by Better than Ezra
Better than Ezra: Paper Empire
Recommended if you like
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Ezra Dry Goods
Better than Ezra:
Paper Empire

Reviewed by Mike Farley


t’s hard to believe Better than Ezra has been around for almost 20 years, and maybe even harder to believe that Paper Empire is only the band’s sixth studio album. Frontman Kevin Griffin is about as prolific as Ryan Adams, but has written many hits for others to record (Howie Day and David Cook to name a few) and seems to compile as much great material as he can before choosing what goes on BTE’s albums.

Griffin also has one of those voices that draw you in, and if you were a fan of this band in the ‘90s, there is something comforting and nostalgic about that. He writes sugary melodies, easy-to-relate-to lyrical themes, and sometimes re-creates the magic from Ezra’s early years. But that doesn’t make Paper Empire groundbreaking or even close to BTE’s best work -- to the contrary, it’s a few notches above average, but more of a continuation of the pop accessibility that marked 2005’s Before The Robots, rather than the alt-pop beauty of 1998’s How Does Your Garden Grow?

Some of these tracks are formulaic, radio-ready lollipops—including lead single "Absolutely Still," the gang-vocal infused "All In," and "Hey Love," which may remind you of the song Griffin wrote for Howie Day a few years back, "Collide." "Turn up the Bright Lights" is mid-tempo magic, and sounds like something that stepped off the Closer album from 2001, and "The Loveless" also is poppy as hell but more closely resembles early BTE. "Hell No" falls victim to the popular studio technique of using pitch-correction software as a sound effect, a la Lady GaGa and every dance music artist out there today. Two of the album’s best tracks are buried at the end, the somber yet uplifting "Wounded" and the piano ballad "I Just Knew," the latter as stunning as anything Griffin has ever penned.

It’s hard for once-modern rockers to become more accessible and lean toward (gasp) soft rock as the years go by, and difficult to watch as the gray hairs become more prominent on the faces of our musical heroes. Better than Ezra may be inching toward such a fate, but as long as Griffin keeps writing songs, we’re going to keep buying them, and we’re not going to turn our backs on the band. So while you might temper your expectations a tad with Paper Empire, it’s close to impossible for Better than Ezra to put out a clunker.

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