Hi, honey. I’m home. Did you miss me?
For anyone who writes to live (as opposed to for a living), two months is an awfully long time to stop. I didn’t intend for my extended hiatus to last this long, but after living compound-sentence-free for the whole of October (which I cheekily referred to as the October Project), I kept putting off the dive back in. At first I gave myself time frames. You know, this week I’ll write an outline for a story. Or, this week I’ll write Sentence One of my Great American Novel that I’ll probably never finish. One of my ideas was to plunge back into writing as soon as we’d picked a President, but that’s a whole other column.
And here’s a snippet of it: At first, I was fascinated by the election mess, but now it’s completely absurd. It doesn’t matter which little boy in the sandbox gets to play with the big truck. It really doesn’t. An election this close means only one thing, and that’s that whoever wins is okay with roughly half of the country. For fuck’s sake, stop arguing over who got the bigger half, flip a coin and move on. You’ve both destroyed your political careers completely anyway.
I’m fine. Really. Deep breaths.
So it became obvious to me that if I didn’t just start writing again, I never would, and I’d probably be dead within a year. So here it is – weekly life support for me, weekly musical (and various and sundry) commentary for you. Let me start, then, with a qualified announcement for long time readers of this column in its original incarnation.
There won’t be a Top 10 List this year.
I’ll qualify that – there probably won’t be a Top 10 List this year.
You wanna know why? Because 2000 sucked. There hasn’t been a year this bad since I started writing this column. I start thinking about the Top 10 List as early as February every year, keeping track of albums that are good enough to rate special attention. Come September or so, I make a list of those contenders, and the number is usually up around 25. My Year 2000 list has seven. There are some genuine surprises on it, like Kip Winger’s Songs From the Ocean Floor, but there are some truly unworthy records on there as well. Simply said, nobody knocked me on my ass this year. I knew I was going to make this announcement when I found myself entertaining the possibility of including Radiohead’s self-indulgent mess of a follow-up, Kid A, just for its sheer audacity.
Just to show how far it’s fallen this year, I’m about to give Everclear a favorable review. Watch this.
I fully expected Songs From an American Movie to be among the lamest things I heard in 2000. Why did I buy it? Well, I’m a sucker for big, bold, massive artistic statements. Magnolia was one of my favorite films of ‘99, The Fragile got the top spot last year, etc. I always buy double albums because the idea of stretching creativity to its breaking point intrigues me. A double album is a huge statement of purpose, something that demands attention. It’s also, unfortunately, often just twice as much crap from a lesser artist. (R. Kelly comes to mind.)
It’s surprising, then, to find that Songs From an American Movie doesn’t fit that mold. Everclear’s a radio-ready modern rock band, and their double album is nothing less than the ultimate radio-ready modern rock record.
In many ways, the album’s two-disc concept works against it. Songs was released separately in two volumes, Learning How to Smile and Good Time for a Bad Attitude. True to its pre-release hype, the first volume is the pop stuff, and the second rocks much harder. It’s really just a matter of production, though. Smile layers on the drum patterns, horn and string sections, but each of the songs on it could be performed like the stripped-down Attitude, and vice versa. Everclear’s mastermind, Art Alexakis, tries to unify the discs by bookending the title track (“Song From an American Movie”) in two parts, at the start of Volume One and the end of Volume Two. That’s the only concession he makes to a double-disc record, though. Otherwise, Songs is two distinct parts that would have added up to a whole quite a bit better had he integrated the styles.
That’s all I’m willing to criticize, though, and the fact that I like this so much strikes me as odd. Isn’t this the same three-chord pap that I hate so righteously most of the time? Doesn’t a trifle like “Unemployed Boyfriend” usually make me cringe? Why do I dig this?
It’s because Everclear obviously digs it as much as I do. Alexakis puts so much energy into his playing, singing, songwriting and production that it transcends mediocre material. To be fair, as well, some of the Songs are quite good as well, like the lovely “Otis Redding” on volume one, and the sung-spoken “Babytalk” on volume two. Hardly any of it sounds calculated or forced, which is my biggest problem with a lot of similar bands.
No, Alexakis and the boys (bassist Craig Montoya and drummer Greg Eklund) are obviously into what they’re doing, regardless of demographics and marketing. From the first witty strains of “AM Radio,” the third track on volume one and my (ignored) choice for a single, they’ve got you, and resistance is futile. Hell, they even made me kind of like their version of “Brown-Eyed Girl,” a song I never, ever have to hear again. Learning How to Smile is a pure pop delight, even when Alexakis is singing about separation, abuse and death.
The rawer sounds of Good Time for a Bad Attitude are more conducive to the somewhat dark lyrics, and although I don’t need yet another punk-rock raveup called “All Fucked Up,” the rest of the album delivers. It’s just as pop-based as volume one, but without the sometimes intrusive extra instruments. It’s here that we can observe Everclear for what they are: a halfway decent three-piece rock group.
Taken as a whole, Songs From an American Movie encapsulates the recent modern rock trend with nimbleness to spare. It’s really the only modern rock album you’ll ever need to buy, and even though it takes a screaming left turn halfway through, it exemplifies the push-and-pull of the music’s pop gloss and rock crunch sides quite well. Last year, I’d have panned this to death, but a two-disc effort this certain of its purpose and of its creators’ abilities to pull it off stands out this year like a gleaming jewel in a sea of excrement.
Or something like that.
I’ll be playing catch-up a lot over the following weeks, because (a) I have a bit of a backlog and (b) the new releases don’t start hitting in earnest until next February. That’s okay, because I still have albums from Marilyn Manson, Fatboy Slim, Outkast, U2, Insane Clown Posse (really) and Nine Inch Nails to get to. I may even reverse my decision and come up with a Top 10 List after all. Who knows.
Since this is the start of my e-mailed version of this column (the website will be up in a month or two), I’d appreciate feedback. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts, death threats and general weirdness.
Thanks for reading. All I can say is, it feels great to type this again:
See you in line Tuesday morning.