Bait and Switch
Of late, there is much lamentation and belly-achin' in the industry and out of it about radio being so single-driven. "Where has the joy of a great album gone?" many music fans ask. "What happened to consideration of the album as a whole versus just an element thereof?"These questions raise a very good point. No longer do labels want to try to make an album succeed, it seems. But they want that smash single guaranteed to garner 40 plays per week in 120 markets. That amount of overexposure translates very quickly into big dollars. But they are fleeting dollars. Because as soon as that particular single is played out ... well, then they must troll for another single from another band.It's a shame, however, if the single the label chooses to push has almost nothing to do with the rest of the album, like "Walkin' on the Sun" off Fush Yu Mang, the Interscope debut by Smash Mouth. The '60s throwback appeal of this keyboard-driven song fits the guitar-propelled punk/pop of the rest of the album like a hand in a keyhole.So what's the big deal? So what if the single doesn't sound a thing like the rest of the album? Whoever said the tracks of an album had to sound alike?It is one thing to buy an album and discover a track that is the black sheep of the album, the exception, a peculiar and unexpected twist in the context of the other tracks. There is a special kind of pleasure attached to uncovering a surprising facet of a band you enjoy. But it is another thing altogether to be misled.Obviously, massive radio exposure of a single is advertising for the band. The label wants people to buy the album on the strength of the single, because without album sales, predictably, a label makes no money. By choosing a non representative track to push -- especially as that band's breakout offering -- the label is, in essence, guilty of false advertising. That song is a little like a promise, a window into the album. No member of Smash Mouth plays keyboards, in fact keyboards appear nowhere else on the album, yet keyboards are the prevalent element of the single.For argument's sake, let's say the studio had decided to advertise Ghostbusters as a scary movie, using only the footage of the supernatural beasties. Sure, there are some frightening looking ghouls and demons in the movie -- and yes, all those scenes used are in the movie -- but the studio is still, in essence, lying about the movie. As everyone knows,Ghostbusters is a comedy not a horror film. Shady used car dealers call it the "bait and switch" -- get buyers into the lot with one promise in order to get them to buy something else entirely.Think of all the poor saps (roughly 9 million of them) who bought No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom thinking it to be full of bloated pop ballads just like "Don't Speak." If ever there was a song that was non-representative of an album, that is it. In that case, however, the label (ironically, also Interscope) is not culpable having released two much more representative tracks ("Just a Girl" and "Spiderwebs") before the somewhat unexpected success of "Don't Speak." And shame on the ill-informed populace if they paid no attention. None of this is to take anything away from the song "Walkin' on the Sun" itself, which despite its rip-off of The Zombies 1964 hit "She's Not There" (with a pinch of The Doors and a tablespoon of The Hollies thrown in) is one of the summer's more unexpected hits. Nor is it to take away from the rest of the album, which is not a bad representation of the punk/pop genre.The members of Smash Mouth do effectively breathe some life into the overused conventions of '90s punk, thanks mostly to the stellar guitar work by Gregory Camp, whose talent is apparently little challenged by the predominantly pedestrian parameters of punk. While Camp can grind and skank with the simplest of punk six-stringers, his musical knowledge far exceeds the bar chord (the essential tool for the ham-fisted rhythm guitarist) and the pentatonic scale (the beginning soloist's best friend -- "solo in ANY key"). The flourishes and detail-work he adds to the music of Smash Mouth sets them partially above the rest of the crowd.But the success of "Walkin' on the Sun" is going to be more of a detriment to Smash Mouth than a boon. When the gloss wears off this catchy single, the band -- like Primitive Radio Gods, Nada Surf and Jesus Jones before them -- will be left by the roadside. Programmers will dismiss the remainder of the album in favor of the novelty of the single. And music fans who bought the album hungry for more hybridized '60s vibe will feel a bit betrayed. There will be a backlash.The choice of "Walkin' on the Sun" says a few things about how Interscope views Smash Mouth. It shows a lack of confidence in the rest of the material on the album. By releasing what is the exception as the first single, Interscope shows a lack of patience in trying to break the band using means which better represent the predominant music they play. It proves the label is more interested, at least in this case, in creating a big single rather than a band with legs. But this single also says a lot about the band. "Walkin' on the Sun" may very well be the most likely "radio hit" on the album. It may have been the band's first choice as a single. It may be the band's best song. In most instances, though the label will decide what it wants to push, the members of the band can fight that decision if they choose. Most importantly, the single, in the context of the album, shows that the band is more interested in writing material which rehashes the punk/pop genre than in trying to break new ground.Either way, whether the label or the band are primarily to blame, the listener, the music fan, the buyer of the CD is lied to.