Underrated 90s Bands: Tonic
What does underrated even mean? I'm not sure, but it makes me think of Tonic.
I'm no longer a kid, and the older I get, the less inclined I am to give a damn about what's "cool." It's a strange sort of freedom, coming face to face with my unapologetic, unabashed self. And in that liberation, I find myself thinking about Tonic.
Now, Tonic isn't the type of band you're likely to hear in hipster vinyl shops or tastemaker's Spotify playlists, but I'll be damned if they didn't grab me from the moment I heard Emerson Hart's passionate vocals and those heart-wrenching lyrics. The band was formed in the hazy days of the 1990s in Los Angeles, sprung from a chance meeting between childhood friends Hart and Jeff Russo. What they created was pure magic - a fusion of earnest vocals and emotional narratives that won over fans in droves.
Their debut album, Lemon Parade, released on July 15, 1996, was a landmark moment in their career, spawning hits like "Open Up Your Eyes," and "If You Could Only See" that dominated rock and alternative radio. But the real magic was found in tracks like "Soldier's Daughter," and "Celtic Aggression." Lemon Parade was a full album experience, delivering more than just the radio hits.
When I think of these songs, I think of the Boston radio station WBCN and their “Naked Disc.” That was a CD that I had featuring bands doing unplugged versions of their songs on the radio, except unplugged was MTV’s thing. Thus, WBCN called them “naked.” This 1997 disc was chock full of songs like “Selling the Drama” by Live, “Glycerine” by Bush, and The Verve Pipe doing their hyper-dramatic tune “The Freshman.” Tori Amos covered “Losing My Religion,” Sugar Ray did “Fly,” Better than Ezra did “Rosealia," Our Lady Peace did “Superman’s Dead,” and yes, Tonic did “If You Could Only See.” It was so very 90s that it couldn’t possibly 90s any more. Not only did everyone seemingly have a copy of this CD, it populated the bargain bin at every used record store and the station played these tracks non-stop. For my Cleveland friends, WBCN was a powerhouse alternative station like 107.9 The End had been at one point in time.
Three years later came Sugar, featuring the unforgettable track "You Wanted More," which caught my attention from its feature in the film American Pie. But here's the thing about Tonic: they've never received the respect they truly deserved. Sure, they had a respectable number of hits, and sold albums and concert tickets, but compared to their contemporaries like Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, and - lord help me - Live, they just didn't seem to get the same level of acclaim. I try not to trash bands that I once loved, but if there was any justice in the world, Tonic would be bigger than Live ever was.
Then in 2002, years past their peak of relevance, they released Head on Straight, an album that cemented their legacy in my mind. Songs like "Take Me As I Am" showcased Tonic at their best, even if fewer people were listening. Any of these bands that bridged my high school years and lasted long enough to release work in my post-college years, earn a special category of making me feel weird feelings, especially if they still sound the same as they did when I first heard them. It’s not even as much about them as it is about me, ya know?
I'd be remiss not to mention Emerson Hart's solid solo work, which is so reminiscent of Tonic's sound that it could almost be considered an extension of the band. "If You're Gonna Leave" might be one of his best tracks, a song so quintessentially Tonic that it could slide into any of their albums without a blink.
These days, Tonic still tours, likely hitting up regional casinos and playing their hits to a loyal fan base. And you know what? I hope to see them someday. Not because it'll make me cool or because they're the latest buzz, but simply because I love their music. And at the end of the day, isn't that what it's all about? No guilty pleasures, no ratings or rankings, just pure, unadulterated love for the music that moves us, even if we do have to enjoy it in the friendly confines of a Rocksino. Nothing says artistic respect like dodging slot machines on the way to see the bands of your youth.
And that, my friend, is the true meaning of being cool. You do things you like, whether they look cool from the outside or not. You drop all pretensions that anyone was ever cool and just live in the world as it exists. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself in my 40s.