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Gin Blossoms Bloom

Salvatore Caputo

Arizona Republic, January 01, 1992

Bands usually think that getting signed to a record contract is the end of their troubles. "No more macaroni and cheese! Quit the day job! Move out of the roach trap!"

Reality isn't that way, and Tempe's Gin Blossoms are a prime example of how it really goes.

The band ousted founding member Douglas Hopkins on the eve of the release of its debut album back in August.

However, with a new guitarist in tow the group made a triumph of its first homecoming on a national tour when it opened for Del Amitri at Hayden Square Amphitheatre on Sunday.

When an A&M Records representative told me in May 1990 that his label had signed the Gin Blossoms, I told him, "I hope they stay together long enough to make an album."

That's just the way the band looked onstage in the local clubs--ready to fight, on the verge of a breakup. One night, they'd be the best group in town. The next night, they'd be lousy.

Whatever the internal turmoil--whether the group felt like big fish in a small pond or whether the band members were drinking too much--the Gin Blossoms seemed to be living rather than manufacturing the pouty, dissolute stance that so many rockers cultivate.

But guess what? The Gin Blossoms managed to defy my pessimism.

The lineup that was signed--guitarists Hopkins and Jesse Valenzuela, vocalist Robin Wilson, bass player Bill Leen and drummer Phillip Rhodes--managed to put out an extended-play recording, Up and Crumbling (a wry hint at the condition of the band?), and to record the full-length debut album New Miserable Experience (another comment on how they were feeling?).

However, the band kicked out Hopkins and replaced him with Scott Johnson, late of The Feedbags, just before the album was released. Hopkins had written or co-written six of the 12 songs on the album, including the first single, "Hey Jealousy."

As you might expect, both sides are engaged in a spitting match right now. It's unequal, though, because with record-company backing, the band clearly has more legal muscle in any negotiations about rights to the songs Hopkins wrote while in the band.

It remains to be seen what Hopkins will do. With his songwriting talent--he writes something like Marshall Crenshaw, except moodier and more aggressive--Hopkins needs only a new band to successfully compete with his old band mates.

But all of this won't matter much to people listening to the album in the big world outside the Valley, where the band remains virtually unknown. Outsiders will get to know the band as a Hopkins-less entity. He'll seem to be a songwriting appendage, like Bernie Taupin to Elton John or Robert Hunter to the Grateful Dead.

At Sunday's show, Wilson belabored the introduction of Johnson and drew a round of cheers. So even the hometown crowd doesn't seem too heartbroken by the change.

Most reviews of the album, from Billboard magazine to papers nationwide--where the blatant localism of we Valley scribes means nothing--find it bracing, jangly pop-rock.

Frankly, I didn't think the Gin Blossoms had this record in them. After I wrote a feature about the group last year when Up and Crumbling came out, a fan of another group wrote in, saying how light-weight they were. I agreed, but I did the story because they had a major-label record coming out.

New Miserable Experience changed that opinion. Wilson's voice and the Byrds-like harmonies that back him go down easily, but the musical backing fairly jumps out of the speakers. These are not wimpmeisters.

Should the band play Hopkins' songs in concert? At Sunday's show it started the 15-song set with the Hopkins-Wilson tune "Hold Me Down" and closed the show with Hopkins' "Hey Jealousy" (it's hard to avoid playing your first national single on your first national tour).

Johnson seemed fully integrated into the sound as the band did six other non-Hopkins tunes from the album and some older material, including "Number 1," a takeoff on "Twist and Shout."

The Blossoms also did Alice Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy," a tribute to the band's Arizona rock roots. Wilson made it timely by inserting a dig at New Times into the lyrics in retaliation for a recent cover feature on the band's woes.