Songs From an American Movie, Vol. One: Learning How to Smile

Art Alexakis has never hid his bitter childhood feelings. The Everclear frontman, in fact, has loaded his band's albums with mopey and self-pitying songs about his irresponsible father, his troubled adolescence, and his general displeasure with the path that led to adulthood. How many more times are we going to have to hear about his drug addiction and his now clean-and-sober rock star lifestyle? Plenty, if Songs From an American Movie, Vol. One: Learning How to Smile is any indication.

Primarily a tribute to Alexakis's youth -- the good along with the bad this time -- Learning How to Smile is the first of two new records Everclear plans to release this year. And as that tag indicates, this is the "happy" album. Most of the cheerful times stem from Alexakis's memories of listening to the radio -- he listened to it while he was rolling joints in his car or on the way to his first concert, and it was his savior through those rocky years of his youth. Like Van Morrison's "Caravan" (more on him later), which celebrates the power and the glory of the transistor, Learning How to Smile finds its salvation through the airwaves.

But it's not enough that one of the songs here is called "AM Radio." Alexakis also has to name-drop John Prine, title a track "Otis Redding," and cover Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl." Lest anyone think he's a '70s kid stuck in the '60s, he also slaps clunky samples and hip-hop beats over a few of the songs. But Alexakis is least exasperating when he falls back on his usual crutch: bitching about his childhood. The songs feature some big hooks, and the strings and little musical flourishes that adorn many of them are there to conceal the wrath beneath the surface. "Wonderful," the best thing here, is coated with a sing-along AM radio-ready chorus; the irony, of course, is that those little kid days weren't so wonderful. Other times, Alexakis delivers straight-faced, Hallmark-worthy lines to his daughter that imply that everything is all right now. It's a bit perplexing -- and typical of Alexakis. Learning How to Smile is both sincere and cynical; let's see if he can manage to crack the surface on volume two.

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