Tonic was one of the seminal alternative groups of the 90s. Their pop-rock style, along with groups like Better Than Ezra, Blues Traveler and The Wallflowers, ruled the radio during the mid-to-late 90s. Now Tonic’s lead singer Emerson Hart has gone out on his own and left behind some of the grit of his band and embraced the mid-tempo pop on his debut “Cigarettes and Gasoline” to mixed results.
The album opens with the slightly up-tempo Tonic-like “Run To” with Hart emoting the chorus, “When will learn just to give me what I want.” This is as rocking as the album gets, which is both good and bad.
First the good: Hart’s ballads have always been stellar and the first two singles are prime examples. “If You’re Gonna Leave” is the perfect song for a relationship at the crossroads. There is no dancing around the subject of breaking it off as Hart tells his significant other up front, “If you’re gonna leave/ Yeah, you better get going/ ‘Cause I ain’t wasting no more time/ On what you did, and what you didn’t.”
He follows that up with “I Wish the Best for You,” which covers the exact same topic with the same realistic outlook, especially when he sings “Sometimes you’re closer when you’re letting go” in the chorus and “You’ll learn to forget me and I’ll try, I’ll try to forget.”
He also has two stellar acoustic tracks. “Green Hills Race for California” sounds like the perfect song for a funeral as Hart’s voice and guitar hook you and the cello reels you in and holds your attention so well that you will be convinced that time has stopped. The other is “Friend to a Stranger” which starts out acoustically and then a brooding bassline and drums come in and make for an unexpectedly emotionally-heavy song.
Now the bad: The rest of the album. Every other track (save for the title track) is completely forgettable. From the repetitive chorus on “I Know” to the flat-out boring “Ordinary” and “Vanity,” half this album is either forgettable or mind-numbingly dull. He essentially gets stuck in a mid-tempo Don Henley-esque rut and then counters that with a great ballad or slower song.
As a Tonic fan since the band’s debut “Lemon Parade,” I was initially quite disappointed in this album. Emerson Hart left almost all his rock behind him. After several listens this is still a very uneven album. His songwriting strengths have always been his ballads and his rockers. The ballads on this album are still top notch, but with middling pop taking over the rest of the album, it’s hard to recommend “Cigarettes and Gasoline” as a whole. Even after several listens, I only skip to the four or five songs that have stuck. While great tracks, you’d be better off buying to songs individually, than the album as a whole.