Sitting rather comfortably alongside the Soul Asylum type bands, Better Than Ezra’s early albums are a solid mix of alternative rock and Americana stylings. ‘Deluxe’, particularly, may be a modern classic.
For ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ things don’t always feel as smooth. The band began to change direction on their third commercially available album, ‘Closer’, and by the time of this fourth release, for the most part, I’d say that the sound I most associate with Better Than Ezra isn’t really present. ‘Closer’ in many ways marked a definite shift, but for this album, the shift is more pronounced. The synths and electric pianos seem far more prominent and sometimes they seem to work, sometimes not. While some of the electric piano and keyboard led moments of ‘Closer’ had a smoothness (‘Get You In’ is lovely; ‘I Do’ is solid alternative pop-rock), moments which feel similar on this fourth outing are angrier, spikier and generally edgy. While some songs are obviously very good, it doesn’t have much in the way of user-friendliness. It may not even be the increased use of electronics; it may just be that for a good proportion of this album, the drums are way too loud. Maybe it’s because they’ve tried to follow up ‘Closer’ with something similar, to show how they’ve mostly moved on from the obvious Soul Asylum type sound, but the songwriting often lacks focus; that’s not to say it doesn’t have some notable moments – Better Than Ezra are, after all, a decent band.
On the opening track, ‘Je Ne M’en Souviens Pas’, the keyboards dominate so much of the arrangement. Combined with the vocals having a phased treatment and pretty much no guitar work, you could be forgiven that they’ve abandoned their past completely and gone synth-pop or electronica. It’s probably meant as a statement, but it’s a really poor choice of opening track and has little to make me want to listen to it more than once. They’ve attempted to be striking, but just about muddled through. ‘Live Again’is very drum led and clearly in the alternative rock bracket, but where guitars would normally be the focus, this song has nice electric piano flourishes. This could be a great song, but it’s not instantly obvious in the way that some of ‘Closer’ had been. ‘Under You’ is mellow and is much closer to old fashioned Ezra, but there’s something missing somehow. It’s not in the music; the music itself is as good as the band’s other pastel shaded moments. It seems to be lacking an obvious hook, which was something ‘Deluxe’ never really felt short of. It’s pleasant enough though. ‘At The Stars’ is definitely one of my favourite tracks; it sounds like a mix of older Ezra, with Our Lady Peace, but that may just be the drum pattern. Excellent.
‘Waxing Or Waning’ has a very relaxed feel, with brushes on the drums and twangy guitars. More Americana than much of the album, I wonder if anyone in the band is fond of the work of Howe Gelb? There’s a spaciousness which reminds me of him and his colleagues. He may well argue, of course. A mass of pre-programmed drums makes up the bulk of ‘Beautiful Mistake’ – a track which is nowhere near as focused or clever as it thinks it is. Largely forgettable at worst and casual indifference at best makes this track easily skippable. In total contrast, ‘Pull’ explores the band’s all-out alt-rock side, with big riffs and guitar solos. While their earlier work was only this rocky on occasion, personally, I’d much rather they went in this direction than the electronic one largely favoured on this album.
‘Particle’ matches pre-programmed drum loops with live drumming to good effect. Again, it’s the keyboard driven sounds here which carry the tune rather than the band’s previous Americana influenced styles. It’s hard not to think of Canada’s Our Lady Peace, although the vocals aren’t that striking. There’s a nice use of a mellotron sound during the last couple of minutes which more than fleshes out the arrangement, but still, at over six minutes, it feels slightly drawn out. Generally this succeeds in doing something ‘Beautiful Mistake’ failed spectacularly with. ‘Like It Like That’ somehow reminds me more of Third Eye Blind. It mixes slight samba rhythms, power pop chords and a repetitive hook that, while not brilliant, manages to stick in your head. The only thing here which doesn’t feel quite natural is the high pitched synth. After a handful of plays, it’s clear that this is one of the album’s high points.
Another of the album’s standouts is ‘How Wonderful You Are’. Again, while I’d struggle to recognise this being the same band who gave us the brilliant ‘Deluxe’, it’s kind of brilliant in its own right. Jangly guitars, a pure pop chorus and a nod to Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ make this recommended listening. Near the end of the album, ‘Everything In 2’s’ finally offers the listener something unmistakable. The soulful vocals, mid-paced arrangement, build up to the chorus and semi-acoustic stylings are very much in keeping with the old classic Better Than Ezra, so they’ve not completely abandoned the feel which drew me to them initially.
There’s very much an ‘experiement-not-quite-realised’ feeling about this album and on the whole, while ‘How Does Your Garden Grow’ is solid enough, it never quite hits the spot enough to match BTE’s earlier work. As good as some of it may be (‘Live Again’, ‘Everything In 2’s’ and ‘How Wonderful You Are’ particularly), its hard to imagine it being anyone’s favourite album by these guys.