Major Lodge Victory Label: Hybrid Recordings
Talk about a band out of time. Even when the Gin Blossoms’ fabulous debut, New Miserable Experience (don’t let any music snob tell you that album doesn’t kick ass), dropped in 1992, the music world was in the throes of a passionate love affair with the city of Seattle. In fact, it was another year after the album’s release before “Hey Jealousy” finally dented the Top 40. “Found Out about You” soon followed, and the band became one of the biggest acts in America. Fitting, then, that that would be the time that ousted guitarist Doug Hopkins, who penned both hit singles, would choose to kill himself. It was as if fate itself was deliberately holding the Gin Blossoms down.
Sure, they had a huge hit single a year and a half later with the Marshall Crenshaw co-write “Until I Hear It from You,” but by the time Congratulations I’m Sorry, the follow-up to Miserable, appeared in 1996, people seemed to have left the band behind. This despite the fact that grunge was now deader than disco (thanks to someone else’s self-inflicted gunshot wound) and likeminded bands like Toad the Wet Sprocket, Hootie and the Blowfish, Barenaked Ladies, Dave Matthews Band, Wilco and the Jayhawks were all making significant inroads on radio. The right time had seemingly arrived for the Gin Blossoms…and no one seemed to care. The band broke up a year later.
Fast forward ten years, and a reformed Blossoms (four of the five principles on Congratulations I’m Sorry, minus the drummer) recruit their (only) producer John Hampton and take another whack at it on Major Lodge Victory. Now, ten years is a long time to be away from the music scene – though the picture of the band on the inside suggests that it’s been twenty years since Congratulations – but damned if Lodge isn’t a fine little pop record. Sure, Hopkins is still gone, but he didn’t write everything for the band back in the day. Guitarist Jesse Valenzuela (“Mrs. Rita”) and singer Robin Wilson (“Allison Road”) know their way around a tune as well, and while this is no Newer Miserable Experience, it would at least earn the title I’m Sorry about Congratulations I’m Sorry.
Leadoff track “Learning the Hard Way” has that vintage Gin Blossoms snare drum pop and Byrdsy guitars ringing throughout, but something is off. You don’t know what at first, and then it hits you: did they replace Robin Wilson with a soundalike? I had to double-check the credits to be sure, but nope, it’s Wilson. And it certainly sounds like Wilson…but it also doesn’t sound like Wilson, at least on this track, anyway. He’s more like Ye Robin of Olde on “Heart Shaped Locket,” which sports the album’s best chorus (“Lights me up like a bottle rocket / Cleopatra meets Sandra Dee / That girl’s gonna ruin me”). But that chorus pales to the bridge on “The End of the World,” which soars like no Gin Blossoms song has ever soared. This added level of nuance is surely due to the presence of erstwhile Rembrandt Danny Wilde, who produced the album’s closing track “California Sun” but sports writing credits throughout the album.
But before you think the album’s a big Beatlesque love fest, the band hasn’t forgotten what it does best. “Long Time Gone” and “Let’s Play Two,” continuing the band’s love of baseball (see “7th Inning Stretch” on Congratulations, which is exactly what you think it is) are driving rockers, and “Curious Thing” bears more than a passing resemblance to “Until I Hear It from You.” “Jet Black Sunrise,” however, veers a little too close to Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train,” and Lord knows the world only needs one version of that song.
It must be daunting for a band like the Gin Blossoms to enter a music scene as fucked up as the current one, but give them credit for sticking to what they do best and not trying to adapt to their surroundings (Heart, 1985) or, worse, whoring out space on their record to the flavors of the week (Santana, 1999). In fact, they made a record that could easily be called the second best thing they’ve ever done. As crazy as it may sound, diminished expectations can sometimes be a very, very good thing.