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."
Although it's hard to imagine him offering up anything less than slices of life, So Much for the Afterglow is even more personal and forthright than Sparkle and Fade. While on past albums Alexakis has faced his romantic and chemical demons ("Electra Made Me Blind," "Strawberry Burns"), the new album is centered on songs about his mother's nervous breakdown ("Why I Don't Believe in God") and the absence of his father ("Father of Mine," a Springsteen-worthy missive to a dad who callously hit the bricks when Alexakis was just a kid). Slice-of-life stuff, to be sure, but Alexakis bristles when asked how much of his material is pulled from his own past.
"My songs aren't as autobiographical as you would think," he explains. "It makes me uncomfortable that people think they are. There are people who write all sorts of songs but no one's asking them, 'Well, who is this song about?' There are a couple of autobiographical songs on the new album, and if I came into it cold I would think that 'Father of Mine' and 'Why I Don't Believe In God' were definitely autobiographical. But some of the songs -- like 'Sunflower' -- are things that I just totally made up. But even the things that I make up have touched me somewhere in my life. Either way, I think I know what I'm talking about in my songs, whether it's looking at my daughter and hopefully not having to see her go through the hell that I went through, or looking at my mom having to watch me go through a hell of my own making for so many years and still loving me and being there for me. I don't write songs about what I don't know or about things that haven't touched my life somewhere at some time."
That songwriting edict has little to do with the surreal lyric focus of obscurantist indie titans such as Pavement or Guided by Voices, or the seemingly endless line of grimacing grunge whiners snatched from rock's underbelly in the wake of Nirvana's early-Nineties breakthrough. (Korn, anyone?) And naturally Everclear -- whose first album cost a whopping $400 to make and was issued on an indie before Capitol re-released it in '94 -- has felt the critical sting of standard-bearing purists.
"Talk about a bunch of cannibals," he groans rancorously. "I never pay attention to people like that. I remember when Sparkle and Fade came out, critics would ask, 'Now that you've had success, do you feel like you've turned your back on the indie-rock community?' Well, what community? I've never seen much of a community there and I've never been much a part of it if there is one, so I wouldn't know. I guarantee you that I didn't make a low-fi record to be cool or hip; I did it because I had only 400 bucks to spend on a record. Had we been signed to a major label, I would've made the record sound different.
"You know," he continues on a roll, the words coming fast, "no one complains about the Beatles having hit records. That's why I never pay attention to any of that. I think, basically, we're a pretty easy band to get: You either get it or you don't. Flat out, we're a rock and roll band. We're not an alternative band and we're not an indie-rock band and we're not a metal band. We're a rock and roll band. And you either like rock and roll bands or you don't."
Everclear performs with Jimmie's Chicken Shack and Feeder at 8:00 p.m. Tuesday, March 3, at the Cameo Theatre, 1445 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 532-0922. Tickets cost $12.50.
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