"Songs From an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile"
The rules of what's become this thing called modern rock are etched on the graves of every young band cocky enough to think that their major label will love them back someday. Look across the graveyard in the pale fog of the dawn and you'll see the headstones: Live, Sugar Ray, the Refreshments, Cake, Geggy Tah, on and on. It's creepy and beautiful in here, in the same way that the final resting grounds of the unknown soldiers in Virginia are; together these dashed dreams and anonymous, heroic struggles on the part of regular schmos all conjoin to make part of that shiny plastic noise we like to call America.
Right outside the fence of this cemetery, rattling the old iron gate, is Everclear, a modern rock band that's had more than its share of life among the living. That's "had," as in the past tense. For right about now, Everclear is playing their third act. In Act I, the band established some form of indie cred, then signed to a major for "Sparkle and Fade" (1995). During Act II, they scored a handful of major rock-radio hits off "So Much for the Afterglow." Their Act III is the reluctant return captured on "Songs From an American Movie, Vol. One: Learning How to Smile."
The album, which is supposedly about nostalgia and the bliss of summery, American pop, was nearly a debut solo record for singer/songwriter frontman Art Alexakis. Rumor had it that Everclear was in the process of disbanding, a casualty of among other things, Alexakis' prodigious ego. (He's the kind of professional ex-junkie rock star who will speak out on Capitol Hill in favor of laws against deadbeat dads, then send out a press release about it with his new record.) Moreover, the band seemed to be at some sort of artistic impasse: The dude's been writing the same song over and again for at least two of his last three albums.
So why is Everclear back as a band? I have a theory. You know that Smash Mouth song "All Star"? The snappy single was out for about two hours before it was playing with the highlight reel on "Sports Center," alongside runway fashion shows and throughout 15 serials on MTV -- everywhere. That's what Everclear wants: one last hit before what's become of modern rock evaporates and the "Total Request Live" kiddies overrun the world.
Every song on "American Movie" sounds like it wants to be the next "All Star" or "Fly" or "Rockafeller Skank." They're all tunes that could be used to show the passage of time in Freddie Prinze Jr. movies, or fit in on a "Now That's What I Call Music" compilation or sound wicked awesome in commercials for cars and Gatorade. "American Movie" wants that. It wants a hit so bad -- wants to be so many things to so many people -- that you can feel the songs audibly buckling from all the promises it doles out. "American Movie" also wants to be about something -- namely, the pangs of nostalgia and the loose uncertainty the future holds for a thrice-married 38-year-old rock star for whom the clock is loudly ticking. But in every one of "American Movie's" ill-advised white-boy turntable scratches, in every classic rock radio reference, in every even more ill-advised Chuck D sample, in every answering machine tape conversation squeezed in between the thick, loveless, huge modern rock-by-numbers guitars and drums, there is awesome, colossal failure.
The record fails to adequately describe just what it is that Alexakis misses about his sucky youth. It fails to translate what's so exciting about all the pop songs -- by Van Morrison, the Beach Boys, Public Enemy -- the band invokes on nearly every single song. It fails, most of all, to rock -- which is why, supposedly, Everclear are here in the first place.
And for as much as "American Movie" is about the American pop that Everclear so obviously reveres, the band commits two fairly grievous errors that essentially render the album impossible to take seriously. One, they build one of their Smash Mouth swipes, "AM Radio," around Jean Knight's silly, ridiculous "Mr. Big Stuff." It's a direct lift of the soul classic, and once you add the bad scratching and stupid, old-man lyrics about how there "wurn't no intronet in 1970," you've got a piece of music that is as excruciating and cringeworthy as anything you will hear this summer.
Two: Everclear cover "Brown Eyed Girl," the one concession to sorority chicks that Van Morrison ever made in his life. The only mercy here is that there's no fucking scat solo, and as mercies go, that's a pretty small one. What's more, the decision to cover the overdone standard for every bar band in America at all -- forget that it's done in a totally over-the-top, wistful style that lets Alexakis' gravel-voiced nostalgia sprawl out like a fat guy on a sweat-soaked loveseat -- smacks not of gall or even love, but of cluelessness. And if Everclear are to be believed, if you're gonna buy Alexakis' line that "American Movie" is about the sweet summery lift that great pop music gives him and the boys, you have to be convinced that they know something that you don't. They don't. (Want more proof? Another song samples John Bonham's drum beat from "When the Levee Breaks," a move that was nearly passi even when the Beastie Boys did it in the mid-'80s.)
Instead, what Alexakis is up to here is the very thing that white boys usually get so upset with Puffy for. Tired of rewriting his own songs, "American Movie" is all about rewriting other people's songs in the hope that he'll strike it rich in them thar AM radio hills. This shit is fool's gold.