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Closer Than You Think

Better than Ezra is back--and completely schizophrenic. After the loss of their label (Elektra) and a three-year hiatus from the world of alternative rock, the New Orleans trio has re-emerged with both guns blazing, though one is shooting blanks. Closer, their newest effort, showcases flashes of musical brilliance, sometimes sidetracked by the stumbling block of misplaced, uninspired pop. From the very good to the very bad, the band follows numerous dazzling hits with several dismal misses, a fact that makes Better than Ezra as likable as they are frustrating.

In an attempt to prolong their commercial life and add another memorable song to the likes of "Good" (1995) and "Desperately Wanting" (1996), the band explores a wide range of musical horizons, incorporating blues and jazz into their trademark brand of mid-tempo rock, while experimenting with some orchestral strings and turntable electronica.

At its best, Better than Ezra is edgy, and downright moving. Singer-songwriter Kevin Griffin's voice is hauntingly unique, and his talent for lyrical storytelling emerges in a blend of ethereal ballads and hook-laden power rock. However, the pressure of pop radio confounds what could have been a completely solid attempt. Case in point: "Extra Ordinary," the first single, and perhaps the worst case of BTE's whoring itself for a cheap three minutes of airtime. From the lyrically clichZd to the just-plain-stupid, Better than Ezra becomes Barenaked Ladies in a flimsy, painful cheesefest that culminates with the line, "Just like that Barenaked Ladies song/ OHot like wasabi' when I'm next to your body." That line was awful enough the first time--hearing it as an homage is damned near unbearable.

Ultimately, the forgettable is forgotten, making way for the stellar, which, unfortunately, you will never hear on the radio. Easily one of Better than Ezra's best, "A Lifetime," a heavy, mournful love-lost tale, is as catchy as it is painfully personal. "Recognize," a return to the light-hearted pop, manages to remain fun without seeming idiotic.

Going from the mawkish to the masterful, Closer teeters precariously between classic and campy before coming out on top. A talented band suffering from an identity crisis averts downfall as the members of Better than Ezra prove that they are--at least--better than their destructive tendencies.

--By David Walters

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