Len, again

Gin Blossoms

I’ve posted about Len and their 1999 album, You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush once before, but in a different-ish context, so I’m calling it ok to repeat a little now. Even though it’s now 12 (holy crap) years old, that album still sounds fresh to me. Maybe because it doesn’t sound like the late-90s at all; it borrows and mixes tiny bits from all over music history and every genre, which gives it an oddly timeless quality.

Len was a Canadian band inspired by early hip-hop, gospel, skater-esque punk-pop … and Kraftwerk? “The Hard Disk Approach” is a surreal electro-pop jam, “Cheeky Bugger” would sit nicely next to Blink 182, and “Crazy ‘Cause I Believe (Early Morning Sunshine)” has a chorus that could’ve come from Stevie Wonder. But instead of feeling like a disconnected stream of references and influences, You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush is bursting with the pure love of music. You can hear it spilling out of the speakers – Len just loves it all. Now that I think about, that may be the thing that keeps me coming back to this album after so long, it’s infectious.

But even with a huge assortment of influences, Len clearly loves old-school hip-hop the most. Like, the oldest school – Kurtis Blow and Biz Markie make appearances here, though I’ll never know how they got those legendary guys to join up with these crazy Canadians. And they get it just right – I agree, old school is the best school, and on songs like “Cryptik Souls Crew”, Len pay homage with respect, not with mimicry or irony.

What a shame then that Len never really got it together properly again. Apparently Bum Rush was their third album and there was another after, but the reviews I’ve come across (I haven’t had the chance to hear any of these myself) haven’t been kind. There was an odd magic that came together for just one album, apparently, that was sadly not heard by many. “Steal My Sunshine” was a really fun single and Len will probably be remembered as a one-hit-wonder because of it, but they had a lot more to offer on Bum Rush.

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Gin Blossoms, New Miserable Experience

Gin Blossoms

Apparently, there’s a wicked case of nostalgia going around. I had no idea until I read Chuck Klosterman’s recent Grantland article (which I highly recommend) on the epidemic, but you know what? I’m kind of glad Chuck said something because now I feel less alone. I’ve been weirdly obsessed with the 90s for … well, a while now. It started with watching Thirtysomething reruns on tv, and then Northern Exposure on DVD. And the more I was re-exposed to the 90s, the more I’ve wanted 90s stuff – to the point that I’ve even got Soul Asylum on my iPod. Really. Soul Asylum. It’s becoming a problem.

But it all fits in rather well with a band I’ve been wanting to post about for a long time: Gin Blossoms and, specifically, their 1992 album, New Miserable Experience. Gin Blossoms are a band that kind of just faded away into unimportance, although this was a pretty great album. I suppose it’s not really the kind of album that gets referred to as one of the best of its time or anything, and – sadly for the band – it doesn’t really help anything that their lead songwriter (or, at least, the one who wrote their biggest hits), Doug Hopkins, was fired from the band just before this album was released and then committed suicide not long after. The band continued with a new guitarist, but either it just wasn’t the same without him or the Gin Blossoms were a band destined only for a specific moment.

Honestly, I’m not even sure what that moment was – an idea Chuck explains in his article that I found incredibly interesting: some music makes you nostalgic falsely, that you didn’t really listen to it at a great time in your life so much as you listened to it a lot at some point in your past. That notion really rang true with me; there are indeed some albums that are so intertwined with a specific (good) time of my life, that they are nearly inseparable. Pearl Jam’s Ten will always, always conjure up warm feelings associated with buying a much-desired album with saved pocket money, a weird sense of music-induced independence – the first album I loved fiercely, all on my own. New Miserable Experience doesn’t bring back any specific memory, only a sense of fondness. Back then, I didn’t have that many tapes, and I think Chuck is probably right that we used to listen to fewer albums more often. Through sheer repetition, Gin Blossoms became a band that I feel nostalgic about.

But that’s not really fair to the album and the band. New Miserable Experience really is a good album – early 90s alternative pop at its very best. Sure, its sound is most definitely of its time but, as a pop record, it holds up really well. It’s got mad catchy hooks everywhere you turn, so the songs burrow into your head and refuse to let go. It’s got the kind of melodies you absolutely can’t help but sing along to. Not terribly challenging listening, but here’s where I think Chuck missed one tiny aspect of musical nostalgia: a side effect of listening to one album a lot is that it becomes extremely easy to listen to. You know every note, you remember the lyrics years and years later, the melodies are so familiar you don’t have to think about it at all. It’s second-nature, and relaxing because of it. I think that’s also why I’ve been enjoying those old tv shows – they’re silly and naive, but they are so simple and easy to watch. Sometimes you don’t want to think about it, you just want to sing along.