A multi-site feature on “Where are they now?” bands from the 1990’s.
Geoff at 1001 Albums – Gin Blossoms
Aaron at KeepsMeAlive – The Refreshments
James at KeepsMeAlive – Crash Test Dummies
Boppin at Boppin’s Blog – The Pursuit of Happiness
Deke at Stick it in Your Ear – Paul Laine
GETTING MORE TALE #475: If You Could Only See (Where are they now?)
In the 1990’s, folks liked to make fun of all the old, outdated one hit wonders from the 80’s. Whether the name of your band was Winger or A Flock of Seagulls, few were spared the torment of being teased. It seemed for a while that the only bands that could be considered relevant were not from the 80’s (except for a couple that people always conveniently forgot actually were from the 80’s — Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails).
Today, we like to look back upon the music of the 90’s and do the same thing. Those terrible post-grunge bands, the awful flannel, and groups with names like Hootie or Spin Doctors…always ripe for the pickings! We all do it, don’t we? It’s not like it’s an accurate reflection of the decade. Even beyond the “big” bands, there were some good and some great 90’s groups who lacked longevity, even though their album output wasn’t bad at all.
One such band was Tonic. “If You Could Only See” was their hit ballad, which of course did nothing to hint at the rock and roll on their album, Lemon Parade. That song actually took a long time to finally hit. Heavier singles like “Open Up Your Eyes” and “Casual Affair” preceded it, but obviously did not have the same impact. So, Tonic became one of those bands closely identified with a ballad and not much else — usually the death knell for a group.
I tweaked onto Tonic early. The Record Store that I managed was opened up in April of ’96. A promo copy of Lemon Parade rolled in shortly after. We bought it from the customer for $6 (which was pretty much the going rate for a brand new release back then) and put it on the shelves where it sat for a while. I recognized the album in the Kitchener newspaper’s music section, where they gave it a glowing review. It was produced by Jack Joseph Puig, who also produced my favourite Black Crowes album, amorica. The review claimed that Tonic were clearly influenced by the sounds of the 70’s rather than the 90’s, so I decided to pop it in the player at work and check it out.
I liked it enough to play it a few times, and eventually buy a copy myself. I found it to be pleasant rock. Nothing too hard, but edgy enough. “Casual Affair” for example has an angry groove to it, though it was certainly not going to challenge the Smashing Pumpkins for heaviness. It had a spare, real production. It’s all about guitars; layered in the grand tradition of Page and Hendrix. When it’s quiet you can hear people breathing while strumming. The key thing with Tonic, to me, was the musicianship. I had grown weary of the bands who clearly didn’t give a shit about learning how to play. Tonic were not one of those bands. The busy basslines grooved with a variety of guitar sounds (including lots of slide) and a wicked drum sound to form a modern but rootsy whole. Band leader Emerson Hart was a short-haired dude with big cool mutton chop sideburns. I liked him immediately.
In ’97, “If You Could Only See” was released as a single and the band finally saw some serious chart action. Unfortunately the ballad resonated with the kind of people who tended to buy an album for one song, and not give the rest a real chance. They started coming back used regularly. The album sold 1.3 million copies, but how many of those are in people’s homes today? Their second album Sugar (1999) was miles and away better than Lemon Parade, but failed to make a lasting impact on their careers. By the time they hooked up with Bob Rock for 2002’s Head on Straight (their third LP), it was too late. Proving that the Grammy Awards don’t know their elbows from their asses, that lukewarm CD was nominated for two awards. Like a death knell, the band went on hiatus a short while later.
During their hiatus, the band members worked on music separately but Emerson Hart’s Cigarettes and Gasoline was close enough to Tonic to keep the core sound alive. It contained some deeply personal music — Hart’s father disappeared (like completely vanished) when he was young. Still, a solo album is not the same as a band album, so Tonic reformed in 2008. Their Best of album (2009) contained a number of acoustic and live rarities, and a full album simply called Tonic emerged in 2010. It continued where they left off, plying Tonic’s signature sound based on rootsy guitars and melodies. Sugar remains their high water mark, but the band have been relatively quiet since the reunion began…until now.
In March 2016, Tonic announced that for the album’s 20th anniversary, they would be recording an acoustic version of Lemon Parade. This should be worth checking out, but most importantly we hope a trip to the studio will eventually inspire some brand new Tonic songs!