The quiet/LOUD Effect: From the Pixies to Better Than Ezra

Whenever you come across a list of the most influential rock bands of the ‘90s, you can easily predict the core names you’ll see on there: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and so on. Rarely will you see the name Better Than Ezra. Yet they’re arguably more emblematic of the era than any of the groups mentioned above. Because all those other bands never really went away—to this day, you still hear them regularly on the radio, you can still spot their names in headlines on major music sites, and you still see new generations of kids wearing their faux-vintage t-shirts. In that sense, they belong to 2002 and 2009 and 2018 as much as they do 1993. Better Than Ezra are likewise still a going concern—they released a new single in June—but to many people, they are a band inextricably tied to the year 1995, when their single “Good” went to No. 1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.

“Good” is the entire ‘90s alt-rock narrative condensed into three minutes and five seconds. It’s the ultimate totem of an era when the major-label trawl for the next Nirvana was cast so far and wide, it swept up any DIY group with a distortion pedal and quirky name—even one that cut its teeth playing frat parties in the indie-rock desert of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But more significantly, it’s the song that effectively marks the end point of the ‘90s alt-rock revolution—the moment where the last remaining edges of an underground-spawned sound had been sanded off and polished into pop.

With its strolling bassline triggering an earworm chorus caked in fuzz, “Good” dutifully followed the quiet/LOUD playbook established by the Pixies on their 1988 debut album, Surfer Rosa. That record’s violent mood swings were the natural sonic manifestation of a band trying to reconcile its formative loves of Peter, Paul and Mary and Hüsker Dü (the two influences that, according to legend, were listed in the classified ad that recruited bassist Kim Deal). But Surfer Rosa also represented a crucial evolutionary step beyond indie rock’s ‘80s hardcore roots, with its carnage unleashed in more controlled, strategic bursts, and Deal’s basslines serving as the cool counterpoint to Black Francis and Joey Santiago’s flesh-searing guitar onslaught. Before long, that poise-to-noise maneuver was being duplicated in all corners of the alterna-verse—most famously by Nirvana, whose frontman, Kurt Cobain, openly admitted to aping the Pixies.

But if Nevermind set off the bomb that forever destroyed the barriers separating the underground and mainstream, what followed was an ongoing effort to clear the path and clean up the debris. In the hands of bands like Weezer and Bush, the spastic dynamic shifts mastered by the Pixies started to resemble carefully mapped peaks and valleys that you could see coming from a mile away. And though Better Than Ezra’s “Good”—and the album from which it hailed, Deluxe—was originally released independently in 1993, its mainstream-breaching major-label reissue in 1995 couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. By that point, the post-Pixies sound had become so familiar on alt-rock radio that Better Than Ezra could easily settle into their chart-topping position as if gliding into the ass groove on a vintage secondhand leather sofa. And while none of the band’s subsequent releases achieved the same level of zeitgeist-defining ubiquity, their less-heralded 21st-century catalog has attracted at least one famous fan, perhaps providing a clearer view of the band’s legacy: More than just the fleeting ‘90s alt-rock sensation of popular perception, Better Than Ezra are actually the missing link between Black Francis and Taylor Swift.