By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4 / 5 stars
History will record the New Radicals as a one hit wonder. At best, their legacy will live on in their hit single “You Only Get What You Give,” which nicked the top 40 in the U.S. and reached #5 in the UK.
Not bad for their first single.
Even Gregg Alexander, the New Radicals’ core member, realized what he had found himself in the middle of, touring in support of the song in the late nineties. He is on record as saying the business of promoting a one-hit wonder — his words — was just not for him. To a certain degree, I understand this. After all, anyone who has spent any time reading about musicians knows what happens to the careers of most bands that top out early. Some recover, but most are left clinging to their fleeting fame. Even those who continue to put out excellent music often face a dwindling fanbase, as the masses return to the radio for the next big thing.
And yet I am left wondering what Alexander and company would have produced for a follow-up. New Radicals is an outstanding debut effort that covers a vast amount of ground lyrically and instrumentally, dipping into several genres for inspiration. Floating amidst it all, I can’t help but notice the echoes of Mick Jagger and some very Beck-esque inflections in Alexander’s leads. It isn’t often that a band so masterfully blends influence and originality. And the New Radicals are an original band, there is no question there. For one thing, they aren’t shy about pushing the envelope lyrically — theirs was a special blend of catchy, infectious rock and roll that even my younger self, frightened of straying too close to vulgarity and blasphemous ideas, couldn’t resist.
This is, after all, an album that starts with a woman muttering, “Make my nipples hard…”
I didn’t even know what that meant when I first heard the album!
Twelve years and what feels like a lifetime away, New Radicals continues to provide a provocative listening experience.
New Radicals' "Maybe you've been brainwashed too." (1998)
Despite the unexplained reference to the female anatomy, the first track unfolds into an upbeat rocker that careens between alternative rock and purposeful homage to the Rolling Stones. Five minutes does seem a bit lengthy for the somewhat repetitive content of “Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough,” but it does lay the groundwork for one of the central themes of the album — disgust directed at greedy institutions.
Next comes the aforementioned single “You Only Get What You Give,” a piano-fueled power pop number that functions as a personal mantra of sorts. According to Wikipedia, the media was quick to pick up on the celebrity allusions in the bile-spewing rant in the outro, to which Alexander pointed out that they entirely ignored the more significant references to health insurance, the banking system, and Y2K hysteria.
This only confirms his perspectives on the media and corporate America that are expressed across multiple tracks. (This was further confirmed by the fact that I used to pass shifts at Staples Copy Center singing along to “You Only Get What You Give” when it played once every four hours or so on satellite radio — unedited! If I needed any confirmation that people, especially groups of people like corporations, don’t listen to lyrics, that was it.)
“I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away the Ending” builds up until Alexander, sounding like he’s out of breath, cusses and stretches out the final line, “I think I just gave away the ending…” The energy of this track is infectious; on a couple occasions, it seems like he is referring directly to the listener.
The fourth track, “I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore,” takes the tempo down a notch, but still maintains that same energetic high that started with the opener; the outro here finds Alexander screaming like he’s auditioning for a hair metal band. Still, the song certainly makes up in emotional resonance what it lacks in subtlety.
As the album stretches out, the instrumental and vocal ranges of the New Radicals become clearer — of course, it doesn’t hurt that Alexander has outstanding musicians like co-guitarist Rusty Anderson (more recently known as Paul McCartney’s guitarist) along for the ride. “Jehovah Made This Whole Joint For You” is a fantastic track, even if I can neither offer an explanation for the lyrics nor entirely forgive boneheaded lines like “She’s into some real deep shit.”
What is perhaps the greatest shame surrounding the mid-tour breakup of the New Radicals is their abandoned second single, “Someday We’ll Know.” This should have been an instant classic, a beautiful ballad that stretches the songwriting formula previously established on this album. Instead, the song was forgotten in the aftermath of the band’s dissolution. Still, it has been revived by several different acts; the Hall and Oates cover on 2003’s Do It For Love is by far the best.
Other songs approach the mastery of “Someday We’ll Know,” including the somber, foot-tapping “In Need of a Miracle” and the deep track gem “Flowers.” These are the tracks that I first fell in love with in 1998, and they continue to draw me in over a decade later.
“Gotta Stay High” is a pretty song, a nice inclusion on the release that may not reach the heights of the others, but is strong all the same.
However, there are some low points on this admittedly imperfect release, foremost among them being “Technicolor Lover.” This is the sole track that doesn’t involve any of the other band members, and it shows. “Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too” may create a hypnotic bed of vocals and music that works with the theme, but that doesn’t make it a great track.
It all wraps up with the heartbreaking “Crying Like A Church on Monday,” a song that involves a religious symbol in a fitting metaphor that doesn’t involve an attack on the institution. It is a sensitive, vulnerable closing to an album that bursts at the seams with angst, anger, and disgust. It is yet another reason why I will continue to wonder what that second New Radicals album may have sounded like…
For now, I’ll just have to cling to the most well-known post-New Radicals song that Gregg Alexander wrote but did not perform — “The Game of Love.” Yup, the same “The Game of Love” skyrocketed to popularity in the form of a Santana and Michelle Branch duet.