Art for Art's Sake

Although it's buried near the end of a CD EP and presented as a rough demo, "Happy Hour" may be the song that best explains at least part of the creative drive and artistic aesthetic behind the writing of Everclear auteur Art Alexakis. In it the 35-year-old Portland, Oregon, resident -- a guitarist and vocalist, a recovering junkie and recovering alcoholic, a husband and father -- assumes the role of a typical neighborhood bar slug. But he isn't the sodden, sullen loser of the Replacements' dive-dwelling anthem "Here Comes a Regular."

Instead, Alexakis is the loudest mouth in the place, constantly reminding himself and anyone within earshot that he used to be somebody, that he's painfully aware of the waste he's making of his life and, in the song's defining line, that "I know I talk too much ... I will tell you what I think."

Alexakis likes to talk: about his art, his band, his life, his rock contemporaries -- pretty much anything, all with enthusiasm and passion. And the songs he's been writing with Everclear since the band's 1993 indie EP Nervous and Weird have been among the most confessional, detailed, and evocative to emerge from the yowling mouths of the world's post-Nirvana punk bands. But Alexakis doesn't offer up his songs in the skewed prose of Kurt Cobain (although the boundless fury with which Alexakis, bassist Craig Montoya, and drummer Greg Eklund tear into their material isn't too far removed from that of Nevermind). Rather, Alexakis's songs share more common ground, believe it or not, with Bruce Springsteen. Everclear's 1995 platinum breakthrough Sparkle and Fade -- their second album and major-label debut for Capitol -- was almost a bohemian junkie-punk version of Springsteen's 1980 The River, with a cast of confused, tormented, and drug-ravaged souls standing at the edge of adulthood, knowing they need to make the jump but not sure how, understanding their self-destruction is a dead end but unsure if they can live any other way -- or positive they could if they could just figure out how in hell it's done. Their cynicism was hard-earned and convincing, but Alexakis's characters refused to succumb completely to fatalism, and Sparkle's best songs -- "Summerland," "The Twistinside," and the hit single "Santa Monica" -- are shot through with hope and a craving for, if not responsibility, at least the simple solace and comfort of a good relationship.

But relationships are never simple. While So Much for the Afterglow, issued this past fall, finds those characters in relationships of one kind or another, the album is anything but a sticky valentine of contentment and idyllic romance. From the welfare couple torn apart by poverty in "I Will Buy You a New Life" to the divorcee in "Amphetamine" (who, Alexakis sings, is "the saddest girl that I have ever known"), from the self-described loser geek dating a stripper in "White Men in Dark Suits" to the post-honeymoon realities chronicled in the raging title cut, no one in Afterglow walks casually through life on love's high heels.

"I look at this record as a concept album about relationships," Alexakis explains during a phone interview from Portland during a tour break. "Not just relationships with a lover or a partner, but the world outside, with your mom or dad. As I get older I realize relationships are everything. As a young man you probably don't pay attention to them as you should, but when you get older you realize how important they are -- especially after you've had a child or maybe gone through a marriage or two. Looking at [Sparkle and Fade] after the fact, to me it's more about escape and making changes and trying to get to a better place, whether it's emotionally, physically, literally, or figuratively -- just a better place. So Much for the Afterglow is a little bit darker and there's more dark humor in the songs."

Actually it's a lot darker and a lot funnier in the blackest sort of way (listen to the sarcastic asides in the title cut or the contentious anti-Prozac screed "Normal Like You"). But it also represents a musical leap forward for a group that on its full-length debut (1994's Tim/Kerr-issued World of Noise) built its sound on the crude rudiments of fuzzball power-trio punk.

The new disc's title cut opens with three-part a cappella harmonies that could've been lifted from the studio scraps of the Beach Boys' 1966 Pet Sounds, then turns into the band's most powerful, guitar-laden sonic throttler to date, while "Everything to Everyone" is propelled by a faux hip-hop beat and laced with nagging keyboard squiggles. The choppy guitars and incessant keyboards bouncing through "I Will Buy You a New Life" and "Normal Like You" recall the Attractions of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces. A lilting banjo (played by Alexakis) winds throughout the bleak "Why I Don't Believe in God," and acoustic guitars play a prominent role in several songs' aural construction.

It's a retooling of Everclear's basic sound that sacrifices none of the group's ferocity yet adds enough musical twists to keep the chaos interesting. Everclear was obviously looking for a different approach: Original recordings for the album -- then to be titled Pure White Evil -- were scrapped as Alexakis began writing newer songs that didn't fit with what he says would've resulted in a full-out rock assault. "It just wasn't turning out the way I wanted," Alexakis says of the abortive sessions for the disc. "I had a vision, but as time went on what I was writing and what I wanted to write were two different things. Originally it was going to be much more of a rock record. I think [Afterglow] is still very much a rock record, but [Evil] would've been much less diverse and less dimensional. It had a wider scope thematically, but sometimes wider scopes come off as more pretentious than slice-of-life stuff told from a narrative point of view."

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