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The people vs. Ezra 

Better Than Ezra
; 5:15 p.m., 6:30 p.m., 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7, and Thursday, Oct. 8
; Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, 407-939-3378
; all ages
; free with park admission

For a few years in the last half of the ‘90s, it was impossible to listen to any alt-rock or Top 40 radio station in the country for more than a couple of hours and not hear Better Than Ezra. Mostly, it was "Good," the breakout track from 1995's Deluxe, but there were a few other songs that ingrained themselves into the collective memory of American music of the mid-'90s. The most fetching of these is "In the Blood," also off Deluxe, which features a guitar sound that verges on the early, post-punk inflected style of the Cure and showcases Kevin Griffin's instantly recognizable voice without relying on the catchy vocalizations of "Good."

Both then and now, Better Than Ezra has been met with a skeptical ear from the standpoint of the professional music snob. All Music Guide scribe Mike DeGagne writes off the band's debut as "just another example of a band that suffered from the redundancy of a stereotypical rock formula," but he's missing the point entirely. Better Than Ezra didn't suffer from a stereotypical rock formula; the band created a stereotypical rock formula, one that helped accustom the ears of Americans to sounds and styles many of us hold dear.

When writers look down their noses at BTE, one of the most common citations (aside from the aforementioned gaffe) is the argument that the band is too "samey." Let's pretend for a minute that this – a band sounding like itself – can possibly be construed as an artistic deficit. How many other bands – seminal acts, in fact – can be accused of just this? If Better Than Ezra is samey, the Ramones are a goddamned lithograph.

While Deluxe and its follow-up, Friction, Baby, follow a similar vein of post-grunge, alt-rock creationism, the band's third effort, How Does Your Garden Grow?, takes a significantly different approach. It also hints at something interesting about BTE: They seem uniquely attuned to the musical zeitgeist, able to read the tea leaves of the American music landscape and roll with the changes. Just when the alt-rock thing was about to wind to a close, as BTE was being tossed aside as yesterday's news, the band traded hats and reinvented itself with an injection of electronic soundscapes and pond-crossing pop stylings reminiscent of the modern Britpop invasion.

Fast forward to 2009: The band's latest release, Paper Empire, focuses on solid, basic pop songs with a slight adult-contemporary lean. The album leads off with the lovely and understated "Absolutely Still," which pairs hushed guitars against a driving backbeat and yearning vocals that occasionally veer into a tasteful falsetto. Appropriately enough, the lyrics spin a tale of the insular nature of love set against the backdrop of a world moving increasingly too fast.

The first track does a good job of setting the mood for the entire album, which focuses heavily on mellow, midtempo, emotionally mature, vocal-centric songs. There are a few sidesteps that keep the album lively, including the mid-album singalong "All In," on which organ and synth trills add a bit of instrumental variety while the party vibe and lyrics inject some casual levity. The band sums up the message with the lines "The moral of the story/There isn't really one/The bottom of the line is to have a bit of fun," and that's exactly what this track accomplishes. Elsewhere, "Black Light" shows a band capable of crossing over onto the dance floor without losing its identity or integrity. By pairing a fairly straightforward rock feel with a slight rave-up beat and R&B vocals, "Black Light" provides the uptempo rush and smooth groove necessary to get bodies moving, without trying to be something it's not. It's an astonishingly solid record with only two incongruous missteps involving the hard-to-explain usage of Auto-Tuned vocals. Let's just pretend that didn't happen.

Better Than Ezra was around for one of modern music's most paradigm-shifting moments, and both borrowed from and added to its momentum. The band has been at it ever since, making music that fits its time and place even when the world isn't watching. The title of the band's latest album itself hints at their motivations. There's a lot of fragility in the world. Phases pass; moods and favors change. Better Than Ezra offers stability, not just a paper empire.


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