Some time ago I came across a webcomic strip (I forget which, and I’m too lazy to go find it) that claimed that people, no matter how old, are inexplicably tied to the things they loved at the age of 12. I don’t know how true this is for most people – everybody has their different opinions about their middle school years. Anyone who knows me even a little will know that I still love my middle school years and have kind of an unnatural fascination with them, so the comic in question pretty much pegged me in the gut. If that makes any sense.
My fascination with my middle school years, though, would only kinda-sorta explain why “Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too” by the New Radicals has become one of my most-played albums on both iTunes and my Last.fm page. Sure, it came out in ’98, right when I started the sixth grade. But I’d never even listened to it until fall of last year; the only song I had any recollection of beforehand was “You Get What You Give,” the band’s only big hit that, while successful, kept them in a well-guarded “One-Hit Wonder” holding cell that they never broke out of. My sister had the album, but I never listened to it. I wasn’t much of an “album” kid, see; even the albums I did buy were only for the few songs I knew from the radio and TRL (mostly the Offspring and Sugar Ray). I was only in it for the singles, and the fact that my sister’s tastes also ran from N*Sync to B*Witched (christ, I can’t believe I still remember them) didn’t help matters. Long story short, I ignored the album.
So it’s kind of funny, all these years later, how much of this album I genuinely enjoy. It’s a different kind of enjoyment, though, than the kind I get from bands more fitting to someone my age, like Pavement or Radiohead. When I listen to this music, I think to myself, “Jeez, I should have listened to this when I was 12. I probably would have loved it.” That’s not a fair assessment, though, because that would imply that this is music that I don’t enjoy now. And that just ain’t true.
Then again, I feel like this kind of music was almost designed to be liked by someone like me. It’s pop music, essentially, but it’s delivered in a different way; it’s socially-conscious piano-rock, but it’s produced like mainstream pop, carefully crafted to fit in with Big Emotional Anthems like “Bittersweet Symphony” and “Closing Time” that were so damned popular at the time. Another big selling point was lead vocalist and main songwriter Gregg Alexander, who seemed to encapsulate the band’s greatest strengths as well as its most nagging flaws rolled into one. Listening to the album now, I don’t know what to think of Alexander’s personality. I like his voice, for the most part; he has a tendency to get a little over-zealous about drug use and environmental concerns that seem a tad specious, but when he restrains himself, he has a very pleasant voice. My main problem with Alexander is his obvious ego, something that sticks out like a sore thumb every time he sings; he’s one of those guys you can tell is sorta in love with his own voice, using it in every way he can, from background singing to scat-singin’ to whatever. He’s very, very over the top and emotional, and has a tendency to over-enunciate his lyrics to make them sound more meaningful than they actually are. It takes some getting used to.
I can forgive that, though. Alexander, despite his borderline-annoying personality, knows his way around a melody, which is really the meat and potatoes of this album. Yes, the band treats every chorus as Big and Important and Meaningful – but it works, because the melodies are catchy, and Alexander and the rest of the band know how to sell them. And that goes a long way. It especially works when Alexander goes for a more subdued vocal approach, like on “Gotta Stay High” and “Jehovah Made This Whole World For You Carolina” (an unwieldly title to be sure, but one that is pulled off well in the context of the song). Honestly, when the band works with a simple piano melody and builds around it, it brings out the best in them.
I can’t say I dislike the Big Important Anthems, though (I’ll stop using that term from here on out, it’s starting to annoy even me). Yeah, they can get kind of over-the-top and self-serving in that kind of late-90’s way; occasional jabs at the government, plenty of references to drug use and illicit sex, and tons of references to the 60’s/70’s, specifically involving hippies. You almost get the impression that Alexander has a thing for hippies, actually, which is made pretty obvious in songs like “Flowers” in which he compares his love to “the flowers you smoke to get high” and “Jehovah”, which is a somewhat snarky character portrait of a hypocritical female environmentalist (“She screams ‘We better think about the O-Zone Layer’ / while tossing out a styrofoam cup”). This all stems from the hip 70’s nostalgia that the 90’s was obsessed with, which probably was part of the album’s appeal, and moreso, it’s why the album still feels like a total product of its era.
But despite all of that, I just really, really enjoy the sound of this album. “Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough,” the opener here, brims with enthusiasm, from the neat repeating guitar riff to the simple piano line to Alexander’s screeching soul-wannabe vocals (even hearing him belt out an reggae-like scat thing at the end doesn’t kill the song, though it’s a little embarrassing to listen to). “You Get What You Give” was a hit for a reason – it defined late-90’s optimism, from its “one-two-three-OWWW!” opening yelp, to its “Never Give Up” chorus, to its controversy-baiting ending in which Alexander makes some cheap shots at big-at-the-time rockers Beck, Hanson, Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson (Gregg was just as guilty of commercialization as any of them, which he probably knew). I loved this song when I was younger, and while its “message” is transparent as window glass to me now, it still gets a rise out of me and probably always will. “Technicolor Lover”, despite some awkward lyrics about pubic hair or something, is a surprisingly cool late-night kind of song (and the touch of grungy guitar in the second chorus is a nice addition). “Flowers”, while maybe one of the corniest songs on the album, is very pretty, and the “I love you / You hate me” coda that pops up near the end of the song is wonderful to hear. “Crying Like a Church on Monday,” with its lower-octave vocals in the verses, cool guitar solo, and pleasant mellow piano sound, ends the album gracefully. It might sound kind of cheesy, but there’s a lot of heart in these songs, and it sounds like they were poured over with the utmost care, and even when that “care” equals “attempted commercial viability”, it still sounds impressive.
One thing I will say about this album – and this is offhand – Gregg Alexander seems to be obsessed with drug references. It’s kind of bizarre. “I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away The Ending” is the one track that goes overboard in this regard, telling a story about buying coke, snorting coke, mistakenly snorting coke, doing pornography to pay for coke (no joke), and… well, coke coke coke. I don’t know if Alexander thought he was a cool dude for writing these lyrics; they reek of a “Hear that, man? I do COCAINE. Yeah, that’s right, COKE!” vibe, and it’s annoying. Drug references pop up occasionally in other songs on the album, but it’s not as explicit. It honestly makes me wonder if Gregg Alexander ever actually did drugs in the first place; these feel like the kind of drug lyrics that only a middle schooler would think was cool – “My mom let me buy this album the other day, and the singer, he sings about COKE! Yeah, that’s right! COCAINE!! No joke!”
But whatever. Minor quibbles aside, I still enjoy this album. I know that it’ll always be a product of its time, though; hell, you can even tell just by looking at its cover, with its colorful neon-yellow sunburst and Gregg Alexander’s cocksure bucket-hat-donning pose (hey, I had a bucket hat around that time too! Well golly gee!). Hell, the band itself seemed to know their days were numbered; after “You Get What You Give” was big, they broke up fairly quickly after Alexander ditched the rest of them and went on to pursue writing songs for Michelle Branch or something. Surprise surprise. This is also an album that flew right under the radar: semi-popular at the time, only one hit song, band breaks up, nobody hears from them again outside of Toyota commercials. It’s not an album you’ll ever hear a college student blasting from the dorm next door, or the kind of album that’ll be given a chapter in the Grand History Of Rock ‘n Roll, but it’ll remain with me as a personal gem. Ah, the late 90’s… how I miss thee. Maybe I’ll see if I can buy a bucket-hat somewhere. I used to have a Star Wars Episode I-styled one. What a stupid kid I was.
Oh, by the way, Gregg Alexander does a shitload of cocaine.