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[whitespace] Everclear Happiness 101: Everclear belies its pouty looks with 'Songs From an American Movie, Volume 1: Learning How to Smile.'

Photograph by Karen Mason

Up Beats

Everclear keeps a positive outlook with its new album

By Gina Arnold

EVERCLEAR'S ART ALEXAKIS is the last of the great American romantics. The strength of his music has always lain in his remarkable ability to fashion convincing narratives out of three simple chords and three simple cliches: 1) Former Drug Addict, Now Clean, 2) Sad Girl Saved by Love and 3) The Love of a Small Child Redeemeth All Men.

So powerful is Alexakis' allegiance to these three themes that, time and again, his songs rise above mere corniness, achieving instead a measure of anthem-like greatness. Songs From an American Movie, Volume 1: Learning How to Smile (Capitol Records), Everclear's third LP, is the quintessential example of this talent.

Originally intended as a solo record, it is instead Everclear's best work to date, distilling Alexakis' strengths as a songwriter into pure pop form while adding just enough musical variations to the mix (like a phat sample from the 1971 R&B hit "Mr. Big Stuff" on the song "AM Radio"), and a lush orchestral closing number about his daughter that sounds like a replacement tune from Titanic, to keep the record from sounding like Everclear's previous material.

The album, Alexakis says in the accompanying press notes, represents the "pop" side of Everclear: the "more malevolent" will appear on Volume II: Good Time for a Bad Attitude, due out in the fall. Dividing up his two sides in a monster double-LP project seems a bit pretentious, but it's not entirely out of character. Alexakis is a guy you either love or hate: intense, obsessive, completely upfront and slightly self-serving.

Those traits are both his strengths and his weaknesses, and they have served him well over the years because they've made him a guy who does not back down. For example, in the late '80s, he led a San Francisco band called Colorfinger that was somewhat bowed beneath the weight of an egregious "cow-punk" moniker that was groovy at the time.

When Everclear's first major-label record, Sparkle and Fade, came out in 1995, it was billed as "post-grunge punk pop," but nothing had changed about the music except the length and color of the singer's hair. Sparkle and Fade had several big hits--"Santa Monica Pier" and "Heroin Girl"--and 1997's So Much for the Afterglow followed it up with "Father of Mine" and "One-Hit Wonder."

There was, however, something samey about both these records. For one thing, the autobiographical material was beginning to get tired. American Movie is equally autobiographical, but it's more textured--catchy and strangely moving. It's a really confident record, too. Early on in the disc, we get a modernized cover of the much-covered Van Morrison song "Brown-Eyed Girl," which Alexakis actually manages to take for his own. Few people would want to sandwich their own numbers between one like that, but Everclear's stand up to the comparison.

AS THE ALBUM'S awkwardly long title suggests, Alexakis writes songs with dramatic plots and lots of visual imagery. The fact that there is no such movie in existence is made irrelevant by powerful images like "the only thing that ever made sense to me/was the sound of my little girl laughing from the window on a summer night" and "go to bed and put out the light/We both know if we talk anymore we're gonna end up in a great big fight" from the touchingly literal "Thrift Store Chair."

Other highlights include the single, "Wonderful," and the title cut, "Learning How to Smile," which, without being particularly literary, tell pretty damned compelling stories.

Despite Alexakis' rather forceful personality, Everclear has not escaped the post-Nirvana malaise of band-facelessness. Indeed, Everclear's songs are much more recognizable than Alexakis himself is, despite his penchant for mythologizing his life. Songs from an American Movie has plenty of moments of rank nostalgia in which he mingles his own past with music history.

"AM Radio" is the best example, a catchy reminiscence of listening to AM radio in the '70s and waiting for ages to hear his favorite song. "Brown-Eyed Girl" uses the haunting refrain "I hear a song that makes me think of a girl I used to know" over the familiar tune. Even more personal are songs like the valiant "Otis Redding," in which Alexakis recalls his days as an addict, and "Now That It's Over," a song about his recent divorce.

True, he's covered some of this ground before. But the bottom line is, his songs on such subjects ring truer than most. The exception is probably "Unemployed Boyfriend," an unsubtle take on the old joke "What do you call a guitarist whose girlfriend has just dumped him?" (Answer: "homeless"). Like the song "I Will Buy You a New House," from the last album, it seems to be about who Alexakis wants to be, not who he is, and as such it doesn't have the same force as the other numbers. It's almost too romantic for its own good--but at least it errs on the side of righteousness.

And that's another point in Everclear's favor: its relentless optimism. As on previous LPs, Alexakis' daughter, Annabella Rose, appears on every record in name or deed. But unlike Eminem, whose wife and daughter also figure prominently in his work, Alexakis uses such characters as touchstones for Good.

See, in addition to its other strengths, Everclear is really one of the only bands around today that exudes positive values and emotions without sounding fake, heartless or merely juvenile. Thank God, the American movie that's running around in this band's head isn't a slasher flick or a fem-jep--and given the current state of pop, that fact alone should make you want to buy this record.

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From the August 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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