Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Music of Gregg Alexander

The best defense I’ve ever read of a musical performer who’s managed to remain both lightly mainstream and discreetly underground was found, oddly enough, in a thread of comments on YouTube. It was posted by someone who’s clearly a cult fan, in response to an unreleased track by Gregg Alexander. When another listener posted a brief comment criticizing Alexander for singing out of key, the fan stood up for him with a truthful, spot-on retort: “He MADE the key.”

Gregg Alexander (born Gregory Aiuto in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in 1970) is best known as the songwriter and frontman of the short-lived late-’90s pop/rock outfit New Radicals. Short-lived, indeed; the band released just one album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, on MCA Records in 1998. The album did, however, spawn one hit song that barely grazed the Top 40, “You Get What You Give,” which spent four weeks on the charts, peaking at #36 in early 1999.

A rollicking, infectious pop number not a little indebted to the likes of The Beatles and David Bowie, “You Get What You Give” is authentically inspirational in its message, while also raising an extended middle finger to the music industry and celebrity culture: “Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson / Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson / you’re all fakes, run to your mansions / come around, we’ll kick your ass in.” Sing along, everybody! Ironically, the track garnered a devoted following among celebrity musicians themselves, with none other than Joni Mitchell proclaiming in an interview that “You Get What You Give” was one of her favorite pop songs at the time.

Regardless, Gregg Alexander wouldn’t be nearly as patient with a mainstream career as Joni Mitchell has been. Disenchanted with touring and the public-relations side of the music business, the shadowy, enigmatic Alexander who often appeared in publicity photographs with a hat pulled down over his eyes disbanded New Radicals just days after the release of their album’s less successful second single, the sublime “Someday We’ll Know,” agreeing only to shoot a video for the song. Then he went his own way.

Fortunately, he’s been writing and producing songs for many other pop music acts ever since, and to much acclaim. His most notable accomplishment was winning a Grammy Award in 2003 for co-writing “The Game of Love,” performed by Santana and Michelle Branch. Other artists to whom Alexander has loaned his talents throughout his career include Belinda Carlisle of The Go-Go’s, Ronan Keating of Boyzone, Enrique Iglesias, Taylor Dayne, the UK band Texas, and American Idol cast-offs Justin Guarini and Carly Smithson (recording as Carly Hennessy at the time).

Then, of course, there’s Danielle Brisebois the singer and former child star, who played a character on the TV sitcom All in the Family. Along with working on each other's solo albums, she was Alexander’s closest sidekick in New Radicals and has remained so throughout much of both of their lengthy music careers. In addition to being musical collaborators, they were also on-again, off-again romantic partners, until their personal and professional lives eventually led them to take somewhat more separate paths. (Brisebois has gone on to write hit songs for such artists as Kelly Clarkson and Natasha Bedingfield, and she’s now married to UK guitarist Nick Lashley.)

But before all of Gregg Alexander’s hard-earned success had even begun to come to fruition, back when he was still in his late teens/early 20s, he’d already recorded and released two impressive but little-heard albums for major labels, his mature yet precocious debut, Michigan Rain (A&M Records, 1989), and the rambunctiously conceived, hilariously titled Intoxifornication (Epic Records, 1992). As intriguing as that early music of Alexander’s is, the story leading up to it is equally fascinating. Let me quote the following excerpt from the liner notes of Michigan Rain, written by the famed songwriter and producer Rick Nowels, dated January, 1989:

“In the summer of ’86 I got a message on my answering service from a Mr. Alexander regarding production on a song for a movie. When I returned the call, the voice on the other end informed me that he was a 16-year-old singer/musician from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who has ‘Thousands of songs,’ and would like me to produce one of them for, oh . . . why not a film soundtrack?

‘Can you send me a tape?’
‘Well, I don’t like to leave tapes around.’
‘Okay, play me something over the phone.’

The next thing I knew, I was driving down the freeway to meet Mr. Alexander. We sat in my car listening to his strange home demos, and after 15 minutes I told him we would make an album together. Gregg has been in my life, studio and refrigerator for over two years. Now he’s yours. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present the soundtrack to Gregg Alexander’s home movie.”

I still laugh out loud every single time I read this message from Mr. Nowels in the liner notes. I remember trying similar stunts to get interviews with pop stars back when I was the entertainment editor of my high school newspaper, but I never aimed quite as high at age sixteen as Gregg Alexander did. Rick Nowels, at that point in his career, had already written and produced top-selling songs and solo albums for Stevie Nicks and Belinda Carlisle, and he’d soon do the same for Anita Baker, Celine Dion, Cher, Darren Hayes, Dido, Jewel, and Madonna. To grab the attention of someone of Nowels professional stature, especially out of the clear blue, takes not only some serious guts, but also a tremendous amount of talent and luck.

As fate would have it, A&M Records was going through some severe turbulence right around the time of the release of Michigan Rain, so the album got hardly any public attention at all before being almost entirely forgotten. The record label’s confusion is made obvious by the last-minute change of the album’s title, as indicated on the promotional single for the album’s first track, “In the Neighborhood,” which lists the title of the then-forthcoming album as Save Me from Myself, a title shared with perhaps the album’s best song.

For those who took the time to seek out Michigan Rain and listen to its ten playfully ambitious tracks, they discovered a musical and lyrical pop palette that was nearly unprecedented for someone of Gregg Alexander’s tender age. What do the songs sound like? Exactly what you’d expect: finely groomed versions of a 16-year-old prodigy’s bedroom daydreams, funneled through a jangly sheen of ’60s- and ’70s-inspired guitar rock. Alexander was still on leave from high school in suburban Michigan, but on the album’s title cut, he’s imagining himself looking for bar fights, being picked up by some hot babe at a club except that, unlike many of his peers, his particular daydreams are being fully realized and projected in all of their widescreen, Technicolor glory by a chart-topping record producer. Therefore, the song’s catchy choral refrain: “We made the fallin’ snow so hot / it turned to Michigan rain.”

That song and a couple of others the anthemic heartbreaker “Loving You Sets Me Free” and the gorgeous, explosive mini-symphony “Save Me from Myself” could have been massive hits in their late-’80s timeframe, were it not for the deliberately outright quirkiness of Alexander’s howling, pseudo-tortured vocals and coyly over-the-top idiosyncrasies. Religion looms large in other songs, since Alexander was raised, apparently, by conservative Jehovah’s Witness parents. His stance on the punk-lite romp “Sinner Times Ten” is, of course, interrogative, as is the case for most teenagers (“Did we have to bring God into this?”). He's even assisted on this track by the banshee-like background vocals of a young N’Dea Davenport.

In a sense Alexander’s extreme persona throughout the album is a safe embodiment of rebellion, whimsically lashing out against the strictures within which he was raised. As a fictive character in his own songs, he drinks, dances, loves, hates, sleeps around, steals, kills, gets thrown in jail for twenty years. The album’s soaring closing track, “The World We Love So Much,” embraces “all the beautiful things / we’re not allowed to touch” and contains glimpses of epic grandeur, the kind that also hint at what’s yet to come from Mr. Alexander in his later work.

Because Michigan Rain barely even saw the light of day, Epic Records re-packaged half of its songs in 1992 for Alexander’s equally disregarded sophomore effort, Intoxifornication. Two sexy, risqué new singles, “Smokin’ in Bed” and “The Truth,” were released from that album. The lyrics of the latter song make it clear why Alexander’s music was such a hard sell for a mainstream pop audience. His propensity for intense metaphors and point-blank exaggerations run the risk of making the listener take him too seriously. Early in “The Truth,” he croons, “I don’t follow fashion / ‘cuz man it’s such a drag / I got 77 women / and damn am I a fag.” Later, and far more provocatively: “I ask the question / but you are the riddle / I am a Jew / and you’re my Hitler.” What’s clear in the context of his body of work, however, is that Alexander’s lyrics are both sharp and blunt enough to be not just intentionally sensationalistic, but also a clever critique of sensationalism itself.

Two other tracks from Intoxifornication, “I Wanna Seduce You” and “Electric Girlfriend,” seethe with an adrenaline and sexual energy that only someone who’s approaching twenty could conjure up. The effect is youthfully direct and raw (“In you / it feels so good / when I go / under your hood”), but Alexander sings the lines like Disneyland on cocaine. By this point in Alexander’s career, Danielle Brisebois had replaced N’Dea Davenport as his principal vocal counterpoint; Brisebois’ wails, moans, and sighs are as vital to the songs as Alexander’s own. Regarding his penchant for debauchery, Alexander commented in an interview around this time, “I’ve tried most drugs, most positions under the guise of most religions with most genders on most continents.” It’s a brilliant statement that tells you everything you need to know, without really revealing anything at all.

With two self-penned major-label albums under his belt by the time most people are just finishing college, Alexander had experienced the best apprenticeship that he could possibly find in the music industry at the time. He continued to make connections in Los Angeles and London, while living in New York City, where he often made spare cash and tested out new songs as a busker in Central Park and Tompkins Square Park. The two New Radicals singles, “You Get What You Give” and “Someday We’ll Know,” actually garnered a huge following just from being heard on the streets there, well before the album itself had even been recorded.

New Radicals’ sole album-length release, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, sold over one million copies internationally, mainly based on the strength and notoriety of its two aforementioned singles. It’s also, without question, one of the most solid and just plain enjoyable albums in the history of American pop music. The dizzying reach and full-throttle personality of the album’s twelve cuts have never quite been paralleled in the twelve years since those songs first hit the airwaves. From Danielle Brisebois’ unaccompanied opening words on “Mother, We Just Can’t Get Enough” (“Make my nipples hard, let’s GO),” swiftly followed by swirling guitar riffs, bluesy plinking piano lines, and lone hip-hop shouts, we know that we’re not in for the usual pop/rock rollercoaster ride.

This first track, along with most of the others on the album, is about unabashedly finding delight in a kind of controlled excess. Note Alexander’s bombastic vocal attack and improvised rush of quasi-Eastern chanting near the song’s end, along with Brisebois’ breathtaking spoken-word interlude, just prior to an immense breakdown of percussion:

“Social Security number, please.
Credit card number, please.
Money, please.
Money, please.
Money, please.
Soul, please.
Please deposit $85 for the next three minutes, please
(or your call will be fucking disconnected immediately).”

Alexander and Brisebois know they’re making music to be sold to the masses, and they bash that fact about as much as they can possibly get away with on a mainstream, major-label album, right down to the UPC barcode that’s tattooed on Alexander’s hand and shoes in the album’s artwork. Despite their respective successes as songwriters and producers since that time, the sentiment registers as sincere here. Then again, they’re getting stoned in the lyrics of the majority of the songs on the album, too, so it’s not as though their judgment would have been perfectly clear-headed back in those days!

Since the album includes a track titled “Gotta Stay High,” this should really come as no surprise. Surely, getting themselves high fueled the album's manic story-songs “I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away the Ending,” “Jehovah Made This Whole Joint for You,” and “Technicolor Lover” not to mention the funk-inflected, headlong rant of the album’s title track, on which the lyrics that Alexander sings don’t match up at all with those that are printed in the CD booklet: “I bet you trust your bank / just wait until it tanks . . . / And politics, a fuckin’ joke / Right and left, they’re both a hoax.”

To prove that he’s not all post-adolescent posturing, Alexander shows his softer, less combative side on bittersweet ballads like “Someday We’ll Know” (“Who holds the stars up in the sky? / Is true love once in a lifetime? / Did the captain of the Titanic cry?”) and “Flowers” (“My love is real / as real as the flowers you smoke to get high . . . / as real as our god who has spoken on how we can fly”). The album’s closing number, “Crying Like a Church on Monday,” even fuses pure power-pop with tinges of gospel to achieve its transcendent, melancholy heights.

So with that final, graceful bow, Gregg Alexander largely retreated to studio work behind the scenes. Most recently, with the exception of a track that he wrote with Danielle Brisebois for a new Boyzone album this year, he’s disappeared back into private life, no doubt enjoying the royalties he’s earned from songwriting over the years. I actually like it that way, as much as I love all of his music. It makes his earlier work, in relief, seem even more like the truly ingenious pop music that it is.