CD review: Better Than Ezra "Before the Robots"

Thursday, June 9, 2005

As a title, Better Than Ezra's, Before The Robots is a sly commentary on today's retro-obsessed rock scene. But as an album, Robots isn't stuck in one time period or with one staid genre. While the record maintains Kevin Griffin's knack of mixing storytelling elements with memorable pop melodies, the band's musical range has increased dramatically.

Opening with the infectious "Burned," a song about learning from the past and getting hurt in relationships, the record goes on to discuss such heavy topics like searching for the American dream, growing up, and of course heartbreak. The 13 tracks are a mixture of fun, seriousness, cleverness and sadness. Combined they create a record that can make you tap your feet all the while shaking your head in agreement.

"A Lifetime" is one of the best songs on the album. Originally included on Closer, the song is a poignant tale of what some friends do to remember a girl killed in a car accident on graduation day. Lyrical images are what make "A Lifetime" truly great; the listener feels as though he is right there grieving with Griffin. "

With "A Lifetime," Griffin incorporates a legendary rock'n'roll story into elements of his own life. In an interview in support of Robots, Griffin spoke about the song: "Being a writer, it's liberating to know you can create characters and circumstances in your songs. But on 'A Lifetime,' I take a bit of a personal story, and then embellish it." The song, an epic pop-rock ballad following the aftermath of a friend's death, actually takes its plot from the death of legendary country-rocker Gram Parsons. "Gram's tale is just a great, romantic rock'n'roll story," the singer said. "His friend stole his funeral casket from LAX and took it down to 29 Palms and set him on fire as the sun came up ... and that's where I got the story of some friends stealing their friend's urn, and honoring the girl's true wishes, and going out to the beach one morning and listening to this REM song they used to listen to growing up as the sun was coming up. It was a way to make something both personal and dramatic."

One of my favorite tracks from Before The Robots is "A Southern Thang." Chronicling the story of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde named Sarah and Kelly, this song furiously battles its way into your brain to the point that you'll find yourself singing it in the shower. Griffin doesn't have to show much vocal range, but that's fine. The rollicking rock fused with the twang allows it to be a standout track.

Because of his lyrical versatility and knack for pop hooks, Griffin has become a much sought-after songwriter over the past few years. Much of that credit is attributed to Meatloaf. "It's a weird story," Griffin explained. "We were mixing our previous album at a studio in Hollywood, and we had Justin Timberlake on one side of us, and Meatloaf on the other. 'Meat,' as they call him, heard one of my songs, and asked me if I'd write for him." Griffin's track, a fire-and-brimstone gospel number called "Testify," landed as the title track on the rock icon's last album and was generally regarded as the best thing Meatloaf had recorded in, well, decades. And thanks to that random gig, Griffin eventually landed a song on the most recent Blondie album ("Good Boys," a worldwide hit that was later remixed by the Scissor Sisters), and has been non-stop collaborating ever since. The list is impressive and has resulted in three #1 songs in the last 12 months.

Although Before the Robots doesn't break new ground for the band, the album is a solid mix of poignant, recurrent themes, including regret, the American dream, and loss of time/opportunities. Better Than Ezra shows maturity and talent on this record all the while having fun.

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