I guess I must have been playing my Sparks albums a lot at the time, given the pun-laden titles for the cassette sides. Oh the folly of innocent youth…
Tag Archives: Blast From The Past
A little over two years ago I regurgitated an old review about the first volume of Everclear’s Songs From An American Movie twin pack, Learning How To Smile. After hearing “When It All Goes Wrong Again” the other day, I decided it was time to unearth the other, which originally ran in Amplifier Magazine eleven years ago.
So without further ado…
“Aw, anyone could have a bad year…” (“Here We Go Again”)
Double albums used to be a fairly commonplace treat in The Age Of Vinyl, but now they’re as scarce as the green-bearded turtle. How many significant double CDs have been out recently? Wilco’s Being There, and uh…. Hell, these days “prolific” means releasing an album every two years. Record companies – when they do promote your record – will drop your last project like the plague if you issue a follow-up.
Art Alexakis cares passionately about a lot of things, but following the rules isn’t one of them. He planned the two-pronged attack last year with the hope that it would garner some attention, though ironically the success of the first record may get truncated by the emergence of the second. But with his songs all over the radio and his videos the toast of television, Art has a problem most artists would kill for. And with twenty-four new Everclear tracks dropped in our laps, we’re not doing so bad either. The two releases, like Wilco’s two discs, could co-exist as one package or survive independently. Not every track is a keeper, but the percentage is damned high.
Volume One’s clever homage to youth and the loss of innocence is one of the best releases of 2000, with songs recreated (“Brown Eyed Girl”) and borrowed (“AM Radio” is a tree from the seed of “Mr. Big Stuff”) among a bagful of …gulp….pop songs? Even the crunching riffs of “Wonderful” are offset by the “na-na-na-na-na-na” chorus that’s too infectious to resist, and the string-soaked “Annabella’s Song” (Art’s ode to his daughter) sounds like it was lifted from a classic Hollywood movie. The kitsch of “Unemployed Boyfriend” is a matter of taste, but the acoustic waltz of “The Honeymoon Song” is as delightful as it is surprising. Ditto “Thrift Store Chair”, a sleeper Americana cut with a John Prine (!) reference.
The hardest sounding song on the record might be “Now That It’s Over”, which is really a fat pop hook covered with echoes and John Bonham drum sound. But one look at the imaginative video for “AM Radio” will tell you all you need to know about a man whose life was much closer to Chico And The Man than The Brady Bunch. Alexakis’ heroin-addicted past and intolerance of deadbeat dads are well-known plot lines; perhaps now he can finally find solace in the charms of what should have been a normal childhood.
Video: “When It All Goes Wrong Again“
Volume Two’s edge is harder, louder and closer to the classic “Santa Monica” era. The blatant “Rock Star” (“I just want to be a rock star/I just want to get laid”) is probably as true as it is self-mocking. Maybe “Short Blond Hair” is even more telling, where Art claims that “no one really understands just how simple and plain and predictable I am”. Not necessarily true, Art – many critics claim that you’ve been beating the same riff to death for years. The truth actually lies more in the middle – “just when I think I have driven my life to where I wanted it to be/it takes me to a place where I do not want to go”. Everclear was arguably the Band of 2000…so where do you go when you’re “first class living in a goldfish bowl”?
“When It All Goes Wrong Again” and “Misery Whip” boast a guitar sound straight outta Jimmy Page (so maybe there should have been a song called “FM Radio”?), and “Slide” and “Babytalk” are as raucous as anything the band has ever recorded. But check out the old softie on “The Good Witch Of The North” and the title track (where he gives closure to the opening track on Volume One), and you see the sentiment from Volume One slipping right back in. Yeah, Art might bitch about asshole ex-wives and loser friends and tripping over his mistakes, but all that pose pales against “the sound of my little girl laughing/through the window of a summer night”.
Everclear survived because they once had nothing to lose, and their anthems for the disaffected rang true with a substantial body of listeners. And even now, with his career a success, Art can still draw inspiration for his songs from a life full of imperfections and missed opportunities. But underneath the bluster of being a rock star, there are a pair of young eyes who will always need him on a different level, and Art knows that he will be “sitting on top when it all goes wrong again“.
Listen to clips and buy at Amazon
The good Doc knows the A-B-Cs of pop music; this was one of the first tape swap mixes I made for Son Of Tape Tree (a/k/a/ SOTT), a tradition which is in its thirteenth or fourteenth year. We’re down from one every two months to once a year despite the ability to dub CDs much faster and cheaper than C-90s! Title obviously stolen from a great Graham Parker song.
Video: Graham Parker, Back To Schooldays
As more and more obscure pop bands from the 70s and 80s resurface and issue CD anthologies, I’ve started to realize that it wasn’t just a few or us who watched a couple of great local bands wither and die in our area code while corporate rock radio kept belching out the same overhyped crap. Sure, there were a slew of one and two hit wonders in the post-punk and new wave eras, but that was when labels still had a gazillion dollars to toss around. Soon, when things got tighter, labels would just descend on a city with a buzz (i.e. Seattle) and milk it dry; a precision military attack as opposed to the carpet bombing they were used to.
The Flashcubes fell victim to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and when guitarist Paul Armstrong left to form The Most and 1.4.5, the three remaining members carried on as Screen Test. While more of an overt pop band that the ‘Cubes, they were still a powerful presence. Drummer Tommy Allen – as good as there is then or now – locked in with Gary Frenay’s flavorful bass playing to free Arty Lenin to be an absolute alchemist on guitar. Bolstered by two strong songwriters, Screen Test seemed even more primed for success than the Flashcubes and even landed a video on MTV’s Basement Tapes, but alas, it was not to be. After a few years Allen moved to Manhattan and found success as a producer and a touring drummer; Frenay and Lenin remained in Syracuse where they still perform together (in groups and as a duo) to this day.
But a Japanese market hungry for the lost magic found The Flashcubes a decade ago, and the reunited band got to live out what should have happened the first time – screaming crowds, a performance at Budokan and eventually the album they never got to make. So if the incredible three-set gauntlet that Screen Test threw down last weekend – their first performance in six years – maybe fate will smile kindly upon them as well and give them the exposure and respect beyond their local following and cassette EPs.
Obviously words don’t conjure sound, but the band had a treasure trove of should-been hit singles that still sound fresh and vital today. “Anytime”, “Nothing Really Matters When You’re Young”, “Sound of The Radio”, “Restless”, “Suellen”, “Make Something Happen”, “It’s No Secret“…any of these and more should have been blasting out of radios in the early 80s. I still feel the same way after hearing them launched from the stage of a neighborhood bar over a quarter century later. If YouTube was around in the early 80s, I wouldn’t have to tell you about the band because you would already have their albums.
Like The Flashcubes, Screen Test’s first full-length was an anthology of singles and EP tracks, an instant collector’s item. So perhaps the band will follow suit, feed off the energy of that Friday night in August and decide to record again. After three long sets of originals and choice powerpop chestnuts, I know I wasn’t the only one who saw a band far too vital to limit itself to reunions. aybe you know a band like this, too. Maybe your band already took the plunge.
Here’s hoping Screen Test gets that long-overdue callback.