The Collegian
Monday, April 15, 2024

Music Monday: Albums Left Behind

<p><em>Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian

On a drowsy, gray February morning last year, I found myself driving across central Jersey in my Dad’s beat-up 2000 Toyota Avalon. With no music downloaded and no data on my phone, I found myself listening to the raindrops tapping on the windshield. 

Out of boredom, I started toying with the buttons around the radio dock; AM: static, FM: static on most stations, cassette player: empty, CD player: post-grunge. Out of the cold silence, the 23-year-old speakers spat out “Got an angel on the stair," and then the rest of the track, and then the rest of the album. 

This album, Better Than Ezra’s Friction, Baby,” was my proper introduction to ‘90s rock. Released in 1996, it followed the meteoric rise of grunge, but came just before the oncoming legion of copy-paste alt-rock groups. As far as by-the-books alternative albums come, “Friction, Baby” has to be one of the catchiest. Every aspect of the album just works; it does what it needs to do and knows what it is. 

Distorted guitar melodies, crunchy (and I mean crunchy) basslines, Kevin Griffin’s falsetto and crisp percussion are ever-present. The tone on each instrument is simply delectable. The second to last track, “Speeding up to Slow Down,” is dripping in the best the band has to offer. The bass is unbelievably harsh, and when it pops, believe me, it pops. The harshness is rich, complementing the bass drum and setting the tone. 

The guitar hangs around at the beginning, before a quick change that bounds the song in a slightly cleaner direction. Then comes the buildup to the guitar fill. Distortion is back in full force, and it's juicy as ever. There’s a cut to vocals before the true guitar solo begins, and when it begins, it commands attention. 

It’s just good; it just hits; it ties in so well with the rest of the instrumentation, and as soon as it's there, it's gone. I would consider this track to be a microcosm of the album as a whole. It’s not perfect; it’s not the most innovative, but it sounds really good.

Similarly, the lyricism can be strong, straddling the line between vague generalities and specificity. “King of New Orleans,” the opening track, follows the struggles of a fictitious “king” of New Orleans gutter punks. It’s a song about this group, their ups and downs, especially in terms of their position relative to the more fortunate, frat-ier types. 

Over and over, the lyrics hammer down the mistreatment and disdain towards this band of gutter punks. More than other tracks off the record, “King of New Orleans” is (unsurprisingly) lyrically cemented in Louisiana. 

I would be remiss to talk about “Friction, Baby without mentioning their chart hitting eighth track “Desperately Wanting.” “Desperately Wanting” harkens back to the universal feeling of growing older and losing the ability to be carefree. It’s nostalgia, friends going down divergent paths and endless Southern nights, distilled into four minutes and thirty-seven seconds. The song is thematically local while sonically drawing influence from all over. 

The album concludes with the instrumental track: “At Ch. Degaulle, Etc.” which is positively oozing with New Orleans influence. The whole song is covered in jazzier, bluesier sound, all while retaining those post-grunge sounds. 

In “Friction, Baby,” the New Orleans influence seeps through, despite the band’s departure from their earlier twang and bluesy roots. The album's highlights lie unsurprisingly in the unique, in those tracks that pull most strongly from Deep Southern sound. “Friction, Baby” sounds like a band suffering from success. Incorporating external influence and shifting their sound to be more palatable could have been solely to their detriment, but they held onto just enough of their original Southern ooze to stand out, and in doing so made an amazing record. 

As I make my way through my first year of college, the nostalgia and longing present in “Friction, Baby” hits harder than it did before. It seemed fitting for my first Music Monday to cover the first CD I ever collected. I doubt I would collect physical music or listen to my dad’s music recommendations (which are all genuinely rather good) if not for that rainy New Jersey morning and that random CD left behind. 

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