The two main ways to connect a person with emotion: you can tell them what to feel or actually make them feel. In the ’90s, Better Than Ezra won fans by drawing them into stories, shrouding their sentiments with narrative, and letting safe alt-pop rock take their feelings where they needed to go. A simple but genuine formula. They were “kick them right in the face, make them wish they weren’t born” angry, and “please don’t take me home” lusty. It worked for teens across the nation who stayed out past curfew to catch them headlining huge summer festivals (yes, guilty as charged).
In Plays Paper Empire, Better Than Ezra unfortunately chooses the first approach. Couple that with a bit of an identity crisis and the album leaves us desperately wanting more. The band self-describes their latest offering as a “shotgun” approach to an album. Call it skepticism, but a “shotgun” approach to an album makes us duck for cover. A well-executed and so-called “shotgun approach”could equal eclectic. As it turns out here, the aim just led to misfire.
Identity shifts on many fronts may explain the muddled mix. Frontman Kevin Griffin relocated from the land of saints to the city of angels and it appears Los Angeles has dermabraised the bayou birthmark right out of his songwriting. Longtime drummer Travis McNabb (Vigalantes of Love fans insert sentimental sigh here) left the band on good terms to graze the green pastures of Sugarland and was replaced by another Louisiana man, Michael Jerome. In live clips, Jerome appears energetic on stage, but even media missed the change as many current stories use old images of the band. Lastly, at least two of the three band members hopped over the hill with 40th birthdays.
Plays Paper Empire transitions with the cohesion of an evening of syndicated reruns. The single, “Absolutely Still” is safe, but decent and starts off with a well set scene “This grey room/This bunker/The air is humming/us to sleep” before it drifts into hooks. “Turn Up The Bright Lights” fades because it is too similar, though the sound is classic Ezra. A bright spot’s next with “Just One Day” where the band acts their age in a generic, yet universally retrospective ballad that screams movie trailer placement. “The Loveless” is lovable, and in “Hey Love” they borrow from their mid-’90s alum Semisonic with the line “And if every new beginning Is just another’s end”.
Here’s where the buckshot goes wild. “All In” is a 90210 frat party war whoop with a tin-can mix on the vocals, and “Nightclubbing”, like an awkward BBC comedy, completely befuddles with a pop-dance beat and faux British accents. Even an attempt at familial dance party storytelling in “Black Light” is oddly misplaced: “Me and my sister burning up in the room/We turn the black light on, turn the black light on”. Are there other over-the-hill musicians who can pull this stuff off? Sure. Better Than Ezra can’t and this lack of self-awareness does them in.
Next, I was going to (cynically) mention the good news for the band as their chance of a Grey’s Anatomy placement is better than ever, with tracks like “I Just Knew” as front runner. A quick fact check later (to see if they already had a Grey’s placement) and we find Franklin himself said, “That’s what we all hope for as a band, a Grey’s Anatomy placement that just becomes viral.” Well, dream big. At least they’re honest. And if that’s what they set out for with this album, then they might just accomplish the mission. Case in point: Taylor Swift, huge Ezra fan. Maybe they are grabbing the next generation?
The past five years the band has made their mark on the industry in unseen ways, as Griffin writes for and with some of the most popular pop icons of today (such as Howie Day and, coming soon, American Idol‘s dreadlocked dreamboat Jason Castro). It’s understandable the band was ready for a go at front and center again. While (most of) their original fan pool outgrew milky lyrics about first dates and first loves, it’s pretty much impossible to outgrow nostalgia. Songs from past albums, Closer and Friction Baby, tell stories about graduation, reckless love, anonymous characters from New Orleans and REM on the radio. That is who they were. Somehow the band needs to look around for stories of who they are today and sing them like they mean them. Maybe the best advice would be to get back to their New Orleans’ roots, and from an old Saint himself, “Be who you are, and be that well.”