The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday Aug. 21, 2000
Everclear's Art Alexakis Does It His Way
Four albums on, Everclear stake their claim as one of the great American rock bands.
By Michael Goldberg
The biggest musical surprise this year is Everclear's new one, Songs From An American Movie Vol. One: Learning How to Smile (Capitol).
With a title like that, one can only expect the worst. When I first heard the name, I figured for sure that bandleader Art Alexakis had lost it. I thought the title was pretentious and found it unlikely the album could live up to it. But I love Everclear. Their second album, Sparkle and Fade, which I singled out long before it hit the charts hey, I'm not shy is one of the great '90s albums. So as soon as I got Songs ..., I had to check it out.
Imagine my surprise when I slid the disc into my car CD player and heard an ambitious, expansive rock album proof of the group's ability to evolve its sound dramatically as its fortunes have changed over the last five years.
In the beginning, Everclear (drummer, occasional singer Greg Eklund, bassist Craig Montoya and singer/writer/guitarist Alexakis) were a noisy Portland-based post-grunge trio who recorded their initial album, World of Noise, on an 8-track in the basement of a local house. The four albums from World of Noise to Songs... show how Alexakis has worked hard to up the musical stakes an evolution similar to that of the Beatles between Meet the Beatles and, say, Rubber Soul, or Elvis Costello from My Aim is True to Get Happy!
It's not easy to stray from a successful formula. Nonetheless, that's what Alexakis has done. The arrangements include strings or horns or even banjo when appropriate. The writing itself carries on a tradition that predates Springsteen and Dylan, both of whom are reference points.
But, to address a larger issue than Everclear's music itself, I know a lot of people who don't like the band, and I think their reasons are both bogus and worth examining.
I first heard anti-Everclear sentiments when I went up to Portland in 1995 to interview the band in its adopted hometown. Basically, Portland locals saw Everclear or at least Alexakis, who had moved to the Northwest from San Francisco as interlopers who had set up shop in Portland, cut an indie album and then jumped to the majors almost before anyone knew they existed. The locals' position was that it wasn't fair their crowd of bands had worked hard to make it, and here were these outsiders who just grabbed the brass ring and headed for the stars.
Of course, another faction considers any successful band to be a sellout. You know, compromising their art and all that. The only problem with that position is that so many genius artists Nirvana, the Beatles, Dylan, NIN, Joni Mitchell (circa Blue), R.E.M. and on and on have been successful and made some of the great records of all time. As for Everclear, it's pretty hard to listen to "Heroin Girl" or "Summerland" off Sparkle and Fade, or "Wonderful," the first single off Songs ..., and argue that success has compromised the group's art, or Alexakis' writing.
Art Alexakis is part of a new breed of artist. He understands the music business and what it takes to make it, and he's a great songwriter, producer, singer and live performer. He can sit in meetings with a record company's marketing and promotion departments and talk the talk; he can write the hit songs, then perform and produce them in the studio.
Not only that, he's done it on his terms. If you doubt that, just go dig out an album called Deep in the Heart of the Beast in the Sun, which he released on his own label, Shindig Records, in 1990. You'll find that Alexakis has stayed true to his muse. He's just gotten better at writing, recording and performing.
More than that, Alexakis is subversive. For evidence, just listen to the lyrics of that new hit, "Wonderful," which is, among other things, about telling the truth something in short supply in America 2000, from the President's office on down. He sings, "I just don't understand how/ You can smile with all/ Those tears in your eyes/ And tell me/ Everything is wonderful now."
Or how about "Learning How to Smile," in which Alexakis states defiantly, "I will never let them break me."
Now imagine a few million people listening to that line and taking it to heart.
In The Game
Rancid, Rancid (Hellcat / Epitaph): I'd say that Rancid have gone back to their roots, only these roots are harder and rawer than anything I've previously heard from this retro-punk combo. The 22 tracks crash and burn, loud and fast. With production from Epitaph head honcho Brett Gurewitz, this is an amazingly real album at a time when we badly need it. And when you hit track 14, "Radio Havana", it feels like you've just broken on through to the other side. Amazing what the addition of a bit of melody can do!
Various Artists, The Estrus 100% Apeshit Rock Sampler Vol. 2 (Estrus): Bellingham, Washington-based Estrus Records is one of my fave labels, and this 24-track compilation explains why. Kicking off with The Bobbyteens' homage to the Stones, "Rock and Roll Show" (imagine your younger sister's garage combo playing "Brown Sugar"), the album lines up one low-rent '60s-style punk-rocker after another. The sampler culminates with label head Dave Crider's band Watt, who will slay you with their crunching, MC5-style "Cool American."
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.