If there's anything true about popular music, it's that there is never a shortage of people who strive to be as bland as possible in any given era. Amongst all the hardcore rappers and half-crazed rockers and wild pop stars, there are always the warm-milk bands who seemingly only exist to create music that a grocery store can play while people shop. The late '90s was, perhaps, the golden age for this. A litany of faceless diet-rock bands sprung up in the wake of grunge and punk's reign, each of them less interesting than the other. Hootie and the Blowfish. Marcy Playground. Everclear. Dishwalla. Matchbox 20. (It's 20 years ago, now, but the horrifying memory of 102.5 The Bear's playlist is still fresh in this writer's mind.) And then it was all followed up by rap-metal and the rise of Limp Bizkit. A dark era, to be sure.
Anyhoo, all of this muck comes to mind as a result of some time with the debut album from the band Kizik, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Josh Nielsen. It's tough to listen to Kizik without thinking of these kinds of bands and the way they made perfectly acceptable pop-rock that didn't have any edge or purpose to it whatsoever. On their self-titled release, Kizik (which is really just Nielsen playing everything except bass) does a great job at being unremarkable. It's not that their music is bad because the recordings are sub-par, or the instruments are out of tune or time, or because the songs are poorly written. It's that the music has all the pizzazz of a starchy dress shirt from Sears' spring-1998 collection.
The issues are evident early on. Opener "Completely Clean" busts out the "Breakfast at Tiffany's" acoustics right off the bat, but the lyrics seem to be concerned with depicting a person as a vampire. "You're bleeding someone every night / just trying to get full," Nielsen sings in a friendly, nasal croon. Then, before long, he's bragging about never having murdered a child. No, seriously. "Well, I never killed a tiny child to prove just how much I care / or said 'It's okay. Kill yourself, just don't chop off your hair,'" he sings. Huh?
Lyrics like that are always a problem. You can tell Nielsen is open to a kind of grittiness, which is good, but he doesn't realize how off-putting edgy lyrics are when they're not deployed in the right way, at the right time, in the right song. If he's making literary references, they're not focused enough to make sense, and if they don't make sense, they just seem like a creepy guy is singing something creepy, and the la-dee-da uptempo-pop music bed is the wrong place for that.
"Joke" is problematic in the same way. In the second stanza, there's the line "doctors are gods and dad knows best / I like smoking endless cigarettes." Aside from the fact that Nielsen sings the first part like "dodos are gone / start tyin' those beds," the two lines are devoid of meaning together, and the song just comes off as a malformed idea. It seems like Nielsen wants to get at something, but he's hamstrung by his inability to depict a character or a scene in a clear manner.
The story's the same on just about every song, unfortunately. The music is generic and kinda "funky" in that Hacky-Sack-circle way, the lyrics are muddled, the singing is stuck in a wet paper bag, and nothing really ever surprises. It's too bad, because Nielsen clearly has a lot of talent as a performer. It's just that, as a (mostly) one-man band, he's not able to generate a collection of songs that do anything but vie for some kind of blandness award. Maybe next time, Kizik. Or, like, the time after that.
Produced by: Jesse Carse and Josh Nielsen
Personnel: Josh Nielsen (everything but bass), Max Edmonds (bass)
Upcoming show: 9 p.m. Friday at Blush, 18 N. 1st Ave. W., Duluth