Everclear's last CD, 1997's So Much For The Afterglow, was in
heavy rotation in my player for a long time. A bunch of songs jumped
out on first listen: the punky title track; the juiced up rocker
Normal Like You and Everything To Everyone, which had great flow and
undulating keyboards. At first, I Will Buy You A New Life and Father
of Mine just seemed solid and sincere. But their sad tales of troubled
regular folk held up to repeated listens better than other music on
the radio. Learning How To Smile is not as good as its predecessor. A
lot of Learning How To Smile doesn't make an impression. Art Alexakis
plays introspective songs that don't suit him and rehashes his
Learning How To Smile has a couple of strong singles. Wonderful
has the rich, layered sound Everclear are so good at making. Keyboards
and Greg Eklund's shuffling drums keep things moving. Alexakis
poignantly recalls hoping everything could be O.K. between his soon to
separate parents but not wanting others to patronize him by saying
everything's fine. But Wonderful has a feeling of deja vu and
diminishing returns. Its similarity with Father Of Mine goes beyond
being another tale of an emotionally abandoned youth. Wonderful, like
most of their singles, builds in intensity from a quiet start, ending
with Alexakis' repeated screams of "no" instead of the yeahs of Father
Of Mine. AM Radio has a nice loose feel with an easy beat, Alexakis'
relaxed rap and the band's trademark bouncy keyboards. A sample of the
horns from the 70's R&B hit Mr. Big Stuff creates a great groove.
Alexakis' nostalgia for his 70's youth is kind of cute but his use of
R & B rather than hip hop for his most dancable song so far, his put
down of modern technology and his need to keep saying "I never liked
disco" is consistent with an insular attitude. Everclear keep
repeating the same kinds of music. Everclear's limited range has its
worst effect on their cover of Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl. There's
nothing wrong with changing a classic. An ideal cover respects the
original while bringing something new to it. John Mellancamp did a
good job with Wild Night, creating a modern groove that built from the
original's bass line. Everclear slow down Brown Eyed Girl and suck the
energy out of it. It becomes just another vaguely rocking midtempo,
keyboard enhanced Everclear song.
Beyond the singles, Learning How To Smile isn't too interesting.
Alexakis' self centered lyrics are too noticable without the vibrant,
full arrrangements of Everclear's best music. Those not interested in
Alexakis' feelings and personal problems will find Learning How To
Smile a little boring. The CD opens with Alexakis, backed only by a
mandolin, singing over and over that the sound of his girl laughing
makes him happy to be alive. Over slow, bombastic music on Now That
It's Over, Alexakis rants about a breakup. He yells "yeah right" about
the possibility of being friends and wishes he could tell her to fuck
herself. Here We Go Again is O.K. but it sounds like AM Radio without
the sample's drive or a mellower version of Sparkle & Fade's Santa
Monica or Afterglow's One Hit Wonder. On Here We Go Again, Alexakis
screws up a good relationship by glamorizing his presuccess life.
Alexakis isn't at his best as an introspective folk rocker.
Neither the music nor lyrics are interesting as he drags out an
acoustic guitar song, declaring that "we need to slow it down for a
while" on Thriftstore Chair. Otis Redding is a monotonous recollection
of the happy days of poverty with a heavy string arrangement strangely
reminiscent of Someday My Prince Will Come.
Some of the best songs on Learning How To Smile try something a
little different. The Honeymoon Song is unassumingly appealing with
Eklund on vocals and ukelele. Unemployed Boyfriend is an interesting
proposal to a woman who barely knows him. It's strange(one of
Axelakis' claims is "I will always makes you come") but
interesting(the woman's spoken reaction is interspersed between the
verses) though undermined by ending with the woman saying how cute Art
is. The CD ends well with Annabella's Song, which abandons rock
instruments for a full orchestra. The lush sound creates a fairy tale
feel. Alexakis tells his daughter that he loves her even though he's
always on the road.
Often on Learning How To Smile, Everclear aren't at their best.
They are a skilled band and there are quite a few good songs. Maybe
things will improve musically once Alexakis gets his head together.
It's promising that the other half of Songs From An American Movie,
Good Time For A Bad Attitude, is supposed to be more of a rocker.