In 1998, Gregg Alexander had a penchant for wearing the bucket hat made fashionable by people who drummed for The Stone Roses and Gonzo journalists. “You Get What You Give”, the first single from his band, New Radicals, was a fixture on a brand-new show on MTV, Total Request Live. He was a wiry youngster, whose voice seemed too big for his body. When you saw and heard him initially, perhaps you felt an urge from the primal resources of your soul to punch him square in the face. It’s okay, such things can happen to the best of us.
But then that song got stuck in your head. You’d softly sing aloud, “one dance left,” and concerned friends and family members would demand to know what you were doing. You found yourself driving around, alone, with the volume turned up and the windows rolled up. But you shouldn’t be ashamed, because the first (and last) album that song came from is unabashed pop music at its zenith. Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too made Gregg Alexander the 90’s answer to Phil Spector, without the bad rap of murdering people. Success!
Q: What do Nine Inch Nails and the New Radicals have in common (besides their mutual dislike of Marilyn Manson)?
A: Both artists have featured Josh Freese on drums on various albums. Random.
It’s obvious from the beginning that this isn’t an album for children, with Danielle Brisebois demand to “Make my nipples hard, let’s go” before the first chord is played. Before the first lyrics are sung, we hear piano, bongos, and a guitar in the opener “Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough”. The rhythm section enters the picture in the fairly straightforward love song, that takes a bit of a hammer-to-the-head political grandstanding near its conclusion (“Credit card number please/Number please/Number please/Soul please”). This is quickly forgiven by Alexander’s random reggae moment, followed by loud guitars and Brisebois’s voice to close out an excellent opener.
“You Get What You Give” arrives, and is just a great pop song. There are no “bleeps” and “boops.” Just guitar, drums, bass, and piano. And that’s all it needs, there is no demand for any moments with expletives. Sing-a-long moments aplenty. Alexander made no friends by calling out “…Beck and Hanson/Courtney Love, and Marilyn Manson/You’re All Fakes/Run to your mansions,” but is he necessarily wrong (Beck excluded)? “What’s real can’t die.”
Following the most obvious single of the album is the most obvious can-never-be-a-single moment of the track list. “I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away the Ending” has Alexander improvising lines over piano and a drumbeat for the first two minutes, before the proper song begins and everything becomes cohesive. It’s a nasty song compared to the sugar-pop of its predecessor. “She licked rock cocaine sucker/Laughed, said her mom’s doing mine.” “I told her dealer I was broke/He hired a camera man/We did a porno film for coke/I hear I’m big in Japan.” “He started drinking coffee/Too much sugar on the go/He fell dead on the floor/He thought the coke was Sweet’n’Low.” A terrific bit of darkness that maintains its tint in the next song.
A quiet piano/guitar intro leads into “I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore”. Mid-tempo yearnings are hit-and-miss in the music industry, but fortunately this one is a hit. From the out-there lyrics of “…Give Away the Ending” comes a song with lyrics as simple as “It’s gonna rain/It’s gonna rain” and “I don’t want this high anymore/But I can’t give it up.” Alexander’s howling to his lover at the end sells the depression.
“Jehovah Made This Whole Joint for You” obviously mixes religion and pot, but also throws in some politics in a song that musically is tailored for radio play. The girl Alexander sings of is not “anti-American/Although she shot a mayor at nine/He looked just like the prez on T.V./She didn’t know in ’63 he had died.” She represents the indie snob in us (“Isn’t she pissed that all the other non-conformists/Listen to that same obscure band”), and is beyond hypocritical (“Then she screams, ‘We better start thinking about the ozone layer’/While tossing out a Styrofoam cup”). She has to be reminded that it’s a wonderful world, and you get the feeling she’ll never come to the realization.
The second single off the album is the oft-covered, “Someday We’ll Know”, a solid acoustic number. Alexander’s been dumped, and he tries to comfort himself with that someday he’ll, well, know why. Relatable to the ever-been-broken-hearted with lines like “I’m speeding by the place that I met you/For the 97th time/Tonight” and “If I could ask God just one question/Why aren’t you here with me/Tonight?”, it’s a nice song to have at the midway point before the freak-out to follow.
A year too late for the Trainspotting soundtrack, the title track of the album is primarily a pounding rhythm section over indecipherable lyrics. The drums at one point are cut-and-paste on a loop which makes for a nice breakdown before the song’s conclusion. Another well-produced track on an album chock full of them.
“Gotta Stay High” and “Flowers” (“you smoke to get high”) are cousins. More sugar-pop love songs with some adult content concerning drugs and what-not. The latter contains a nice verse featuring a jilted lover (“Dodge me bitch, get your number changed/I’m sorry, forgive me/I never meant to call you those names/But I’m lonely, so lonely…”), and both highlight the second half of the record.
The closing track is another mid-tempo ballad, led by the piano. “Crying Like a Church on Monday” has Alexander singing in low to high octaves. He isn’t jealous of a new man in his ex’s life, but of her newfound faith. “Put down your new God/And love me like Sunday again.” “I can’t he live in his shadow/Is that where I’m dancing until I die?” “Now I don’t like candles/Because they make me see the light.” A soulful trip down 1960s R&Bville to close things out.
Alexander dismantled the group during the promotion of the album, citing the preference to produce and write. He didn’t enjoy being front-and-center, and has made a career of producing others. An Alexander penned-song “The World We Love So Much” was covered by Rivers Cuomo on his rarities album Alone, he won a Grammy for writing “The Game of Love” for Santana. The guy was nice enough to produce a Hanson album.
Is it too bad he may never release another album on his own? Certainly. But it’s better to go out than to be forced out, or even worse, do what you do sans any passion. Amidst the blissful music Alexander creates are socially-conscious lyrics, whose politics can come off heavy-handed at times. However, the combination of these politics, drugs, religion, and love separate Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too from its TRL brethren of the late 1990s.