Welcome to Alterna-Detritus, where mad props are thrown to the once-greats, the also-rans, and the should’ve-beens. I will attempt to throw as many props as possible to the bands of the “alternative era” (which from here on out shall be defined as the period of time between the release of Nevermind and the end of the last millennium when scads of guitar-based bands blew up huge, only to be disposed of as though they were Martika). How these bands are defined will get clearer as entries go on. Some of them will be heavy hitters, some will have been only regionally massive, and a few are known only to the twelve people who bought their record in the first place. As unofficial Alterna-Detritus patron saint Vince Neil often commands, “On with the show!” (That’s not the only thing he ever commands; other Vince directives include “Come on and dance,” “Shout at the devil,” and “Give me a piece of your action.” This blog will never demand a piece of your action, FYI.)
Band number one in this ongoing exploration of forgotten greatness is Better Than Ezra. The New Orleans trio is best remembered (and for most everybody, only remembered) for the 1995 hit “Good” (best remembered for it’s “Uh-huh” in the chorus, which always sounded more like a crazy sounding pronunciation of the word “woman”-like “Wah-mon” or something). “Good” was absolutely everywhere in the summer of 1995-MTV had placed it in rotation in their “Buzz Bin” (which generally used to be a reliable depository for pretty good “alternative” videos of a certain vintage-despite the fact that it seemed like Bush lived in the Buzz Bin). If I remember correctly, it was also immediately used in a bunch of movie trailers, which is pretty genius when you think about it. I mean, if you’ve only heard the song and don’t really remember the trailer, the exchange would go something like this:
PERSON 1: Hey, how do you think that movie will be?
PERSON 2 (Whistling song from trailer to himself): I don’t know. Good, I think.
And then they both get tickets to, I don’t know, Waterworld or something (not that Waterworld was good or used the song “Good” in the trailer, but it would have been pretty brilliant had they stooped that low).
I’m also pretty sure “Good” was an official song used during finale episodes of The Real World for at least a few seasons (typically when the two people who hated each other for eight straight months tear up and embrace and decide that the other person wasn’t as much of a raging bitch/horrible racist/loud mouthed jackass as once thought-that’s when the crescendo of “It was good living with you” always popped up). They had one other bizarre bit of MTV notoriety when they hosted a documentary/commercial for a compilation called Schoolhouse Rock Rocks! It was a bunch of “Schoolhouse Rock” songs (like “I’m Just A Bill”) covered by alt-rockers (like Blind Melon covering “3 Is A Magic Number”). If you have a hard time perceiving a reality in which MTV shows this kind of programming, you’re not alone-I remember it specifically, and even I am convinced that I was just trippin’ balls. The point of all this is that not only did the band have a radio hit, but they also had some crossover exposure.
But did Better Than Ezra exist past their window of indestructibility? Well, sure. As is the case with a lot of these bands, they were slightly too anonymous for any sort of long-term success, and when the subsequent songs weren’t as easily digested as “Good,” they were abandoned for whoever their 1996 equivalent was (most likely people heard Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” and thought they had discovered this great new band).
Better Than Ezra’s debut album, Deluxe, spawned at least two more singles that I remember hearing on the radio-“In The Blood” and “Roselia,” both of which were passable but generally forgettable (though I do seem to remember a black-and-white video for “In the Blood” that seemed way more intense than the actual content of the song). Their second album, Friction, Baby, stumbled a bit with its first single “King of New Orleans,” but I definitely recall hearing second single “Desperately Wanting” so much I thought it had become the new national anthem. And lo and behold, it’s probably their best song. It contains an intensity that had been missing from their “Look at how much we can shrug and slouch” approach that you see in all college rock bands (which makes sense, because these guys met at LSU and played their first gigs at frat houses). The lyrics even foretold the genre that came to be known as emo, because the song appears to be all about being in love with your best friend but not knowing what to do about it. This same dippy sentiment also inspired every single program on the WB for half a decade.
Two years later, Better Than Ezra dropped How Does Your Garden Grow? The beefed-up sound of Friction, Baby was expanded to the nth degree, as the band worked with a lot more electronics, and the songs started growing up as well. “One More Murder” was a piss-poor choice as a single because it lacks a really punchy hook, but it feels sexy and dangerous in ways that the band had only hinted at in the past. The record was basically ignored, and Better Than Ezra was released from their contract with Elektra. Closer followed in 2001 and was universally ignored, save for one thing: It seemed like right after September 11th, the song “Extraordinary” became a huge hit. I have a lot of love for these guys (if it wasn’t already clear, having already spent 968 words discussing them), but “Extraordinary” is one of the worst radio songs of the past decade, mostly due to the canned Sugar Ray-ish acoustic guitar loop and the faux-rapping that makes Rodney Dangerfield sound like Jay-Z. But hey, we were all paranoid and hysterical, and perhaps a honky rap song about getting up early in the morning was just what the doctor ordered (though I doubt it).
Since then, Better Than Ezra have released a live album and a greatest hits record, and on May 31st they will release Before The Robots, what could be considered a return to form. The lead single “A Lifetime” is 1995 all over again, and it makes me feel nostalgic for all the wrong reasons. It even could be used as a graduation song, because it’s about sneaking off to the beach with your girlfriend and your girlfriend’s mother not being upset with you all that much. It’s great car-driving pop (it’s a shame I don’t drive anymore). The record splits the difference between their mainstream, “adult”-type songs (“Our Finest Year”) and their college bar band roots (“A Southern Thing”). Even the somewhat goofy Beck-biting (and, I guess by transitivity, Prince-biting) “Juicy” sounds like a winner. But let’s be honest and pragmatic: BTE is, was, and always will be a bar band from New Orleans who happened to be the cat’s pajamas for a summer. In fact, they’re still the shit in the Big Easy-they play the New Orleans Jazz Fest every year to massive crowds. The most extraordinary thing about them is that despite being more or less disposed of before they even had the chance to enjoy arriving, they still mean it. In another universe, cynicism never took hold, and Better Than Ezra are Coldplay, except they don’t totally suck.
Hey! Do you have a favorite band who has been forgotten and deserves some props? Were you in a band who deserves some props? Are you in a local or regional band who deserves some props? I got your props! E-mail alterna-detritus at [email protected]