It’s New to Elliot: as suggested by Mason Viera

I think I first met Mason in 1999, right before he started his freshman year at Johnston High School. He was an awkward kid who seemed very impressed that my friends and I had a punk band. In the next few years, he became a super handsome dude with a pop-punk angel’s voice, started a band called The Lifestyle and proceeded to surpass any of my musical achievements by fronting a fairly popular band that actually got a little radio airplay here in Des Moines. I would have been jealous, but Mason is a naturally gifted songwriter and performer who deserved every bit of acclaim his band received.

Mason still will text me every now and then to ask my opinion on a newer band, or to confirm that we both hate a band everyone loves. He never holds back with his opinions, and he has zero shame in what he likes. This lack of shame brings us to the records he suggested for me, which roughly follow a theme I’d call “Records Mason Liked Before He Knew Any Better.” It’s all from bands or artists Mason was into in middle school or early high school. I appreciate this theme and wouldn’t mind people in the future doing this for me, even if it results in tragedies like me having to listen to a Smash Mouth record.

Live — Throwing Copper

This was one of those records that got big when I was 12; an age where I loved Rancid and Operation Ivy, yet also had room in my heart for Seven Mary Three. Live had three big singles at this time, and I always watched the videos when they came on MTV. I clearly had some poor judgment, so why did I never buy Throwing Copper? I think I must have internally known that this band was simply not cool. It was Ed Kowalczyk’s shaved head/ponytail combo, it was their way-too-serious demeanor, and it was probably the “I Alone” video, which I’m still convinced 21 years later is a joke that they never admitted to.

Throwing Copper is a perfect snapshot of this era in music: alt-rock bands made records that rocked hard and got noisy, yet they were persuaded by their major label contracts to tone it down for a few songs and write a few potential hits. It’s a stark difference between the band on “White, Discussion” and the band on “Lightning Crashes.” The stylistic clashes here are jarring, but not unexpected for the times.

The big singles are a little dull, but I understand why they were hits. “Lightning Crashes” will forever inspire children of the 90’s to hold their lighters high, and “I Alone” will continue to get children of the 90’s to bang their heads, as long as they’ve heard no other music as heavy as that song. The rest of the record is hit and miss — “Shit Towne” is a lame songwriting effort, yet “Iris” is a competent rock song. “White, Discussion” is such a clumsy attempt at social commentary that it could make a liberal into a Trump supporter. And I think that’s Live’s biggest weakness — Ed Kowalczyk’s overly earnest delivery of every single line. Other alt-rock bands of this era knew their place — Smash Mouth, as you’re about to see as an example. They knew that this was a disposable era. But Live thought they were saving the world, and we all know what happens to bands when they start buying their own hype: they make a song a few years later called “The Dolphin’s Cry” and everyone laughs at them.

My Opinion: 5/10

Smash Mouth — Astro Lounge

Poor Smash Mouth. They started with a tiny bit of cool points, as “Walking on the Sun” was a pretty decent, if not overplayed, hit song that incorporated some element of ska and/or punk. Since then, their cool factor has plummeted and shows no sign of rising. Their most noteworthy achievement in the last decade was when they played at a bread festival and a bunch of people threw bread at them for no reason and singer Steve Harwell freaked out and threatened to “beat the fuck” out of somebody. So yeah…it’s not exactly high times in the Smash Mouth world.

I went into this feeling bad for Smash Mouth, so I tried to keep an open mind for whatever came at me. It turns out that it’s very hard to keep an open mind when you have to hear “All Star” for the thousandth time in your life and get it stuck in your head when there is literally no other song you’d prefer less to have endlessly roll around your brain. “All Star” and the other huge hit, “Then the Morning Comes,” have both come to symbolize what people hated most about late-90’s alternative: stupid, formless, pandering crap that put the nail in the coffin of whatever “alternative” was supposed to be. Those songs are not the entire story of Astro Lounge, as Smash Mouth does show that they have some chops and some diversity. They get sort of punk in spots, sort of psychedelic in “Waste,” and then sort of offensively racist in “Road Man” — a song that pisses on the grave of anyone who has ever played reggae.

I didn’t hate Astro Lounge as much as I feared I would. Musically, it’s not completely useless. But poor Steve Harwell and his bread-throwable face just has one of the most annoying voices in rock history. I don’t think Smash Mouth would be as universally mocked if they had a singer who wasn’t nasally, dopey-sounding and a dead ringer for Guy Fieri. Poor Smash Mouth — they almost had it all.

My Opinion: 4/10

Original Soundtrack — Dumb and Dumber

Like I said, Mason is really hitting this “albums of his youth” thing hard, as evidenced by putting the damn Dumb and Dumber soundtrack in here. Remember when movie soundtracks were a thing? When you actually went out and bought those, either because you liked the movie or you were genuinely curious to pay money to hear some bands you’d never heard? It’s almost unimaginable now. I have to believe that movie soundtracks went out of fashion at the same rate that people purchasing physical music did too. Once we didn’t do most of our music shopping at the store, browsing up and down the aisles and buying whatever looked good, we whittled down our purchasing needs to only the stuff we actually wanted to buy. Frivolous purchases like the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack became illogical.

In a way, this was a sad development for artists and bands, as there is now not as much of an avenue for exposure. This soundtrack is a perfect example of this — a guy like Willi One Blood and his trainwreck of a song “Whiney Whiney (What Really Drives Me Crazy)” would absolutely never have gotten any kind of attention had it not been on this record. His Wikipedia page would be either barren or non-existent. But loads of kids like Mason bought this CD and will forever know that terrible guy and his terrible song, whether they wanted to or not. That’s an interesting phenomenon that might not ever happen again, at least not in the same way.

Is this soundtrack any good? I don’t know, I guess that depends on how you feel about vaguely alternative music from the 90’s. The most famous song from this record is Deadeye Dick’s “New Age Girl” — the one that goes “She don’t eat meat but she sure likes the bone” and has one of the stupidest riffs ever written by humans. In that sense, it fits nicely with the tone of Dumb and Dumber — a very dumb, light-hearted, mostly harmless joke. Pete Droge’s “If You Don’t Love Me (I’ll Kill Myself)” could serve as an internal monologue for both Lloyd and Harry regarding whatever Lauren Holly’s character was named. But other songs just don’t fit — Belly’s “Insomniac,” The Sons’ “Too Much of a Good Thing” and The Proclaimers’ “Get Ready” are just generic songs from the 90’s, inserted by their record label in hopes of that random exposure I mentioned earlier. These songs are okay, but ultimately quite forgettable.

Jesus, I’ve already written way too much about this thing. The point is, it’s an easy ride — a fun journey through a very specific time period in music, and most of the songs don’t suck. I think approve, though I’m still unsure as to why this one still resonates so deeply in Mason’s soul.

My Opinion: 6/10

Sting — Brand New Day

I am slightly resentful and more than slightly suspicious as to Mason’s motivations for making me listen to this record. I know we all liked some unreasonable music when we were very young, like 9 or 10. But Mason was at least 14 when Brand New Day came out, and he absolutely should have known better. But maybe Mason has always rode hard for Mr. Sting, and I just didn’t know this until now.

In high school, I worked at Walgreens for nearly two years. I had to hear the same MOR, white-as-hell adult contemporary mix during every shift. It drove me crazy. One of the worst offenders of the bunch was the title track of Brand New Day — a dry, milquetoast pop song that aims to inspire. Whenever I hear this song today, I am instantly transported back to those days when I walked the bright, antiseptic aisles of Walgreens, and wished I was anywhere else than at work. It’s a very low-level PTSD, and “Brand New Day” is my worst trigger.

As for the rest, you’ll remember “Desert Rose” as the Indian-pop song, and I guess that one is alright. “Ghost Story” is the only other song I sort of enjoyed, thanks to its moving melody and lack of gimmicky production. Everything else here is bad. Brand New Day sounds like such a 1999 record — it’s that soft-ass drum sound and the half-assed electronic touches that keep it from holding up to today’s standards. And so much of this record is just easy-listening white people pop — built to soothe, desperate to ruffle no one’s feathers. I think I just don’t like anything about Sting. His voice is grating. He was by far the worst part of The Police, and as a solo artist he hasn’t contributed anything of worth — except for when he guest-starred on The Simpsons and did vocals for “Sending Our Love Down the Well.”

My Opinion: 3/10

Third Eye Blind — Out of the Vein

Maybe for like five minutes in ’97 did I think Third Eye Blind was kind of cool. But I then pegged them as super uncool, and I never bothered to give them a chance. These days they’re going through a critical renaissance in which they’re being held up as a hidden gem in 90’s alternative rock. Having gone back and given a short listen to some of their debut record, I have to agree that I was somewhat wrong about Third Eye Blind — they were better than I thought. It’s not all just sunshiney, peppy jams like “Semi-Charmed Life.” They drew a surprising amount of influence from the dissonant indie rock of the 90’s. This influence stays with them as we head to this 2003 record, Out of the Vein. As with their older records, there are some genuinely creative moments — off-kilter beats, twisting riffs and propulsive rockin’ times. These parts don’t necessarily get me all that excited, but they’re fine. It’s really all brought down by Stephan Jenkins. Even in those cool songs, his voice is too happy and friendly. And at his worst moments, Jenkins is sing-rapping at a rate just marginally less annoying than Anthony Kiedis. You don’t want to find yourself in that territory, my friends. No one wins when a white guy wants to pleasantly rap at you.

My Opinion: 5/10

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