Songs From An American Movie Vol. One: Learning How To Smile
Capitol Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/04/2006
Forget what you know about Everclear. That mid-90s post-grunge sound was fine for a while, but the band had to either grow or record "Santa Monica" for the rest of their career.
It took adversity -- as is often the case -- to yield a great album, and that's what Everclear has almost created here. Crafting a double album that was released separately, the songs follow a story arc from singer/guitarist Art Alexakis' childhood through his recent divorce. The second volume of Songs deals with the divorce; this one is about growing up, the loss of innocence and the realization that responsibility and heartache are parts of growing up.
But Alexakis remains defiant, even as the music swirls around him. Although he realizes life will never be "Wonderful" again, as he sings on that depressingly optimistic song, he clings to a childhood he never really had, drawing inspiration from the music and hopes of his youth.
It's been done before, but not recently and not with any conviction, and although Everclear slips into the smarminess they can't avoid the album as a whole is both relevant and interesting.
Art and a ukulele (could be a good side project name) open things up with the title track, a short homage to his daughter, before segueing into the catchy Public Enemy-meets-Matchbox 20 of "Here We Go Again." The major hit "A.M. Radio," disowned by the band nowadays, is an overt look at the TV shows, hit bands and memories of Alexakis, but like most songs of this stripe loses relevance as each year goes by, no matter how catchy the song is (thanks to a stolen riff from "Mr. Big Stuff").
Everclear's main problem is a tendency to never embrace highs or lows in music. The songs mostly stay in the the same key, same pitch, same octave and only have a couple of chord changes apiece. This doesn't make it unenjoyable, but gets a little tiring over the course of the disc, and the same approach to every song gets old as well, especially on "Learning How To Smile," which could have been great.
But to their credit, the band embraces alternative instruments, such as the ukulele and strings, though in some spots sound more like gimmicks than necessities (as on the country-enhanced "The Honeymoon Song.") And the less said about the lumbering, irritating cover of "Brown-Eyed Girl," the better, even if it fits the theme.
Alexakis cites Jimmy Page in one song and his influence is present here, as on the bluegrass-flavored "Thrift Store Chair" and the crunch of "Now That It's Over." "Otis Redding" mixes hair metal with strings, but the head-scratching lyric takes some effect away ("Do you remember when we were the losers / Do you remember when we were the lame?" Art asks his wife, which is fine, but later says "I wish I could sing like Otis Redding" in between repeating "I don't wanna be wasted" about 50 times.) Self-mocking and self-reflection is passable but, in Art's hands, sounds like a suburban white kid getting high and bitching about life because he can. I know he had a hard life growing up, but it's hard to feel sentiment for the guy sometimes.
Of course, any time an artist bares their soul, they leave themselves open for criticism. It took guts to make a record like this, and coming in the wake of a divorce, it's a wonder this half of the set is so upbeat. "Wonderful" shows this split perfectly -- it's the sound of a life and marriage falling apart and a boy retreating into his old shell (with the "Star Wars posters on the bedroom door") where he felt safe. The backup vocalists' cheeriness offsets the guitar crunch as the song swells to its conclusion.
If the record had been more like this, it would have been timeless, but Alexakis' whiny voice and questionable, simple lyrics make this seem more like an exercise in self-pity for sympathy's sake. Still, conflict makes for good music, and this is certainly better and more diverse than any of Everclear's other discs.