Songs From An American Movie Vol. One: Learning How To Smile
Capitol Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/11/2003
Over the holidays a friend of mine burned me a CD of Christmas music. This is funny (a) because I'm the Jewish-leaning half of my multicultural marriage, and because (b) my friend's choices were, shall we say, a little on the weird side. Among other things, there were snippets from old TV and radio shows mixed in with Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis cuts. My favorite, though, had to be the classic old routine with David Bowie and Bing Crosby dueting on "White Christmas."
That particular cut is an example of what we used to call "trippy shit." Smooth alongside edgy, avant-garde juxtaposed with traditional... these combinations usually come out either head-scratchingly odd or, when done right, ear-to-ear-grin fabulous. The same, of course, could be said for concept albums; it either works or it doesn't - there's rarely an in-between.
This album -- an ambitious concept album fusing '70s melodic rock with the entire range of Y2K production flourishes (samples, beats, loops, echo, the occasional rap and a head-banging guitar riff or two) -- works.
To complicate things further, this is actually part one of a two-part concept built around the breakup of Everclear mastermind Art Alexakis' marriage. Vol. One is the "falling in love" set-up, though appropriately tinged with angst, premonitions of disaster and premature nostalgia. The contrasting moods are a key part of the concept, putting you right there on the emotional rollercoaster with your protagonist.
For sweetness and light, there's the lead-off track "Songs From An American Move pt.1," a heartfelt, completely disarming ode to Alexakis' daughter, and its counterpart finale, "Annabella's Song." However uncharacteristic these tracks may be -- Everclear's sound typically leans to the heavy side -- they are essential to the impact the rest of the album carries.
Tracking forward, Alexakis effectively captures the early bliss of a relationship in bloom. In particular, the group's take on "Brown-Eyed Girl" is brilliant, reshaping a '70s classic into a fresh, thoroughly modern celebration of falling in love. "Learning How To Smile" offers another close-up of love at it best ("I can handle all the hell / That happens everyday / When you smile and touch my face / You make it all go away"). These early tracks ride you high into the sky, making the cringe factor that much greater when things start to fall apart ("Thrift Store Chair"). Your narrator tries hard to keep it together, pleading for both parties to try to be better people ("Otis Redding"), but it's no good.
The downside packs all the punch of what came before, and more. When the relationship's clearly done and Alexakis finally pulls out the poison pen for a kiss-off song ("Now That It's Over"), he doesn't pull any punches ("Nightmares just don't scare me now / Baby without you"). The dude is *pissed*. And why shouldn't he be? When he sings with wrenching bitterness of his own parents' divorce in the affecting "Wonderful," you realize just how well he understands what's been lost and who's being hurt most by the break-up.
Bassist Craig Montoya and drummer Greg Eklund provide expert support throughout, switching gears and styles effortlessly in an impressive show of musical adaptability. Also worthy of note is the endlessly creative work of Lars Fox (engineer) and Neal Avron (recorder/mixer), who co-produced the album with Alexakis. This album has one of the clearest, tightest and most diverse sounds I've heard in a long time.
Soaring and beautiful in places, raw and savage in others, Vol. One is remarkable for reasons far beyond its melding of '70s melodicism with 21st century production values. It's a great album because it has a lifetime's worth of emotional truth behind it. Creed-clones everywhere, your attention please: if the past three years of the alt-rock scene have taught us anything, it's that just about anybody can write a heavy rock song with a downbeat lyric and a meaty guitar hook. The question you have to ask yourself is, have you given the audience a reason to care? With Vol. One, Art Alexakis and Everclear do.