Recorded in 1989 and released on cassette only in 1990, Better Than Ezra's independent debut album, Surprise, showcases the Louisiana group's melodic, straightforward guitar rock sound. Tragically, barely a year after the album's release, lead guitarist Joel Rundell committed suicide, leaving the future of the group in doubt. However, after giving themselves time to process Rundell's death, the remaining bandmembers -- lead singer/songwriter Kevin Griffin, bassist Tom Drummond, and drummer Travis McNabb -- continued on as a trio. The group's subsequent follow-up, 1993's Deluxe, found a huge audience, buoyed largely by the success of the single "Doubt." While Surprise isn't necessarily a lost classic, for longtime fans and for anyone with a yearning for more of the group's heartfelt approach to indie rock, the album offers a lot to appreciate. Obviously recorded on the cheap and revealing a band still somewhat rough around the edges, Surprise sounds like a raw demo version of Deluxe -- which is a good thing! Rundell has a bit of an edgy, slightly distorted guitar tone that brings to mind the work of such similarly inclined indie touchstones as the Pixies, Buffalo Tom, and Galaxie 500. The sound, which complements Griffin's resonant, emotive vocals and penchant for poetic lyrics, lends the group a bit of welcome college radio grit. Longtime fans will certainly divine layers of meaning out of the leadoff "Ezra Pound," while such similarly engaging tracks as the driving "CDU" and the sparkling "Bag of Cobras" reveal, once again, the pop smarts that would help make Better Than Ezra such alt-rock darlings during the '90s.
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AllMusic Review by Matt Collar