Midweek Music Moment: Songs From an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning to Smile, Everclear

I’m going to offer up another exhibit on RIAA’s shortsightedness on the original Napster. The first song or songs I heard from Everclear’s Songs From an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning to Smile, released 10 years ago this week, were Napster downloads. I’d not heard anything by the band before I came across a couple of their records while checking out some more recent groups on Napster. Soon after, a 40-something guy was out buying this release by a post-grunge band. Not only was it my favorite album that year, it would take only a slight expansion of my Desert Island Disc list for it to appear there.

The trio, formed and headed by Art Alexakis, clearly fits the post-grunge mold. While more commercially mainstream, the “angst-ridden, sober introspection typically associated with grunge became virtual requirements in the hands of post-grunge.” Introspective would describe many of the songs on this album. Yet the production is far from a trio-based hard rock sound and represents the band seeming to move from post-grunge toward what some call power pop. To some extent, it’s surprising this was the band’s second best-selling record. Longtime fans may have found it overproduced and, by adding musicians who weren’t part of the trio but had performed with them on the road, it often has a wall of sound feel. While there are occasional minor orchestration excesses, the production values of this CD are outstanding.

Said to be a concept album stemming from Alexakis’ divorce, its autobiographical nature is far broader. The songs Alexakis wrote for the album are powerful and demonstrate true songwriting talent. Songs From an American Movie ranges from childhood to formative years to courtship to marriage to children to break-ups but virtually every song expresses emotions and deals with situations almost everyone can identify with or comprehend.

Not to single them out over the other songs because the entire album is excellent, four in particular hooked me and have never let go. The opening cut, “Songs From An American Move,” and the final song, “Annabelle’s Song,” are about Alexakis’ daughter (you guessed it, Annabelle). Being the father of three girls, the emotions expressed in the songs still resonate with me. “Just the sound of my little girl laughing/Makes me happy just to be alive,” is the crux of the under 90-second opening cut while Annabelle’s song tells her, “You are my everything.”

Then there’s “AM Radio,” which is about life in the early 1970s and the reliance on AM radio, where, as the opening jingle from LA’s famous KHJ radio station says, “Portions of the day’s programming are reproduced by means of electrical transcriptions or tape recordings.” The song traces those years when AM radio was one of the few vehicles for new music and the music that transported us elsewhere. “AM Radio” then segues into what may be the best cover version of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” I’ve heard. Yet while there is a wall of sound aspect to Evercleark’s version, even with the driving guitars it remains true to the original.

Songs From an American Movie also contains the band’s top-charting U.S. single, “Wonderful.” The song is an exquisitely rendered child’s view of divorce. (Alexakis’ father abandoned the family, an event that is the subject of “Father of Mine” from 1997’s So Much for the Afterglow, with the refrain “My daddy gave me a name/Then he walked away.”) Here, the boy is tired of hearing how everything is or will be wonderful when he can see and feel the enmity between his parents, reminding them and us, “Promises mean everything/When you’re little and the world is so big.”

It’s insights like this that could cause me to rave about virtually every song on the album, its music and its lyrics. That, of course, is what made it a record of the year for me. And, as far as I’m concerned it is one of the records of that decade and far and away the best record by Everclear.

I can handle all the hell
That happens everyday
When you smile and touch my face
You make it all just go away

“Learning How to Smile,” Everclear, Songs From an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning to Smile

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