Scrunged: Candlebox


Scrunge (second-rate rip-off grunge) is a largely forgotten genre, and every few weeks I’m going to examine a scrunge act or two and see if they deserve a second chance. Today’s band: Candelbox.

It’s really hard to write about Candlebox.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with them per say. They’re musically talented for sure, featuring a pretty damn good guitar player, better than average songwriting and legitimately great lead singer.

But at the same time there’s nothing steadfastly memorable about them. They’re the jeet kun do of mid-90s alt-rock. Their style is no style. Utterly radio friendly and extremely competent, but without any real personality outside of singer Kevin Martin’s beautiful voice, which to be honest I’m probably overselling a bit. When compared to the hair metal acts of the 80s and the cavalcade of indie rock acts out today, Martin is nothing special. But when compared to the growlers, screamers and whiners of the 90s, Martin’s pipes sounded like they were made of gold.

I’m not sure if Candlebox ever referred to themselves as a grunge band. They probably didn’t. In that case, it was entirely unfortunate that they happened to be a struggling hard rock band in Seattle in the early 90s, a fact that no doubt got them lumped in with the grungier and more well-known contemporaries.

They certainly don’t sound like any of the major grunge acts of the era, but if forced, the grunge band that I would most likely compare Candlebox to would be Mother Love Bone, the proto-grunge band that served as the precursor to Pearl Jam, as both share an unapologetic love for 70s rock and incredibly heartfelt and emotional vocals.

Turns out this is not a coincidence.

In 1991, Candlebox scored a massive megahit with “Far Behind,” from their 1993 self-titled debut. A perfect power-ballad with an instantly recognizable opening guitar riff and vocal hook, it was not only was a hit on the rock charts, but crossed over into the mainstream, managing to crack the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100. As it turns out, its heartfelt lyrics about losing a friend were in fact inspired directly by the passing of Andrew Wood, the singer of Mother Love Bone who tragically died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Kevin Martin was a self-professed huge fan of Wood, and once you know that, even if you’ve heard just a few Mother Love Bone tunes, it is impossible to un-notice.

If Candlebox has never covered “Stardog Champion” live then they’re fucking up. Martin’s vocal similarity to Wood is uncanny, but at the same time, he’s missing something crucial; swagger. Wood may have been an wonderful singer with a beautiful voice, but he also was one part David Lee Roth, a cocky son of a bitch who knew he was the coolest motherfucker in the room. Martin, and by extension Candlebox, lack that attitude entirely.

In fact as I already mentioned, their music pretty much lacks personality entirely, which is most likely why the majority of their tracks, while perfectly fine, are at the end of the day rather forgettable. Aside from the occasional glimpse of anger you hear in songs like “You” and the drastically underrated “Understanding,”  there’s not much emotion behind Martin’s voice. Compare that to Wood, whose voice could seemingly cover the entirety of human emotion with a track like “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns.”

Candlebox struck it huge with “Far Behind” and were able to translate that into massive sales, with their self-titled debut going 4x platinum. Of course, anyone who was around at the time remembers seeing that CD in the used bins a lot. And by the time that their second CD, Lucy, came out just two years later, many had moved on. They scored a minor hit with “Simple Lessons” (another highlight from them if you ask me) but pretty much everything else from the album failed to catch on.

Honestly though, I think that has far less to do with the quality of Lucy (I actually like it better than their first album) and more to do with the fact that Candlebox was struck with the curse of the power ballad hit. “Far Behind,” while a damn fine song, was not what Candlebox did best. Candlebox’s best tunes have always been their angrier ones, like the aforementioned “Understanding” and “Simple Lessons.” Too bad they barely focused on that, instead going for the middle-of-the-road radio fodder.

Candlebox is a footnote in rock history, and that’s probably all they deserve. but I’ll always have a soft spot for them because of my experience of seeing them live in 1995.

It was the last night of the Lucy tour. The album had come and went. I think they knew their days of any sort of relevancy were limited, and they were having fun knowing that this half-empty show at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater was probably the biggest crowd they were going to play in front of for the foreseeable future. The encore was less of a concert and more of an on-stage party, complete with a couch and bottle of liquor. Martin invited women on stage (after asking for proof of age) and they drank and jammed. It’s not often you get to see a band face their uncertain future with a drink and a smile. I have respect for a band that can bow out gracefully.

Candlebox. Impossible to really love, but equally impossible to really hate. Pick up a greatest hits, you’ll probably dig it.

One Response to Scrunged: Candlebox

  • Joel Bailey says:

    Candelbox is definitely one of my guilty pleasures. I slagged them off so bad when they first came out, but then over time I really grew to like them.

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