Songs from an American Movie, Vol. One: Learning How to Smile (Capitol 7243 4 97061)
Autobiography can be treacherous turf for rock and roll.
It's reasonable enough to use the personal to illustrate the universal, as songwriters from John Lennon to Alanis Morissette have shown. Delve too deeply into private problems, however, and that "Song of Myself" runs the risk of being incomprehensible to anyone but the singer and his (or her) shrink.
Given the length and ambition of its title, it's reasonable to worry that Everclear's "Songs from an American Movie, Vol. One: Learning How to Smile" will fall into the latter category. At first glance, it would seem to have all the hallmarks of terminal self-indulgence - songs celebrating personal benchmarks, songs rehashing old arguments, songs about long-gone lovers, even a song written for front man Art Alexakis' daughter, Annabella.
Yet as much as the album relies on the specifics of Alexakis' life and times, there's nothing insular or off-putting about these songs, in part because the melodies are so pop-friendly and accessible, but also because Alexakis' sense of the past is so firmly grounded in the present.
"AM Radio" is a case in point. Ostensibly a tribute to Alexakis' early influences, it definitely evokes the sounds of the '70s. But this isn't a typical trip down memory lane, for instead of going on about how great things were in the good ol' days, Alexakis emphasizes how primitive those times were. Back in the days before portable CD players, all kids like him had was the AM radio.
Even the song's most overt nod to the past - the way it rides along atop the guitar riff from Jean Knight's 1971 hit "Mr. Big Stuff" - carries a whiff of modernity. After all, they didn't sample songs in the early '70s, did they?
Everclear, by contrast, does a surprising amount of sampling on this album. In addition to "AM Radio," there's "Here We Go Again," which quotes from Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" (the title comes from a Chuck D rhyme), and "Now That It's Over," which loops the drum intro from Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks."
Yet no matter how much the band might seem to rely on hip-hop beats and techniques, the music's feel is solidly rock and roll. Not in the punk-derived style of Everclear's early albums, but in a broad-stroke, eclectic approach that encompasses everything from the chirping mandolins and wordless harmony vocals of "Song from an American Movie, Pt. 1," to the raging guitars and ebullient chorus of "Unemployed Boyfriend."
There are times, as on the remake of Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl," when the album's sound is so slick and lush it's hard to believe the group was once a punk-rock trio. But because all the arrangements seem to spring from the band's influences (be it Brian Wilson, the Sweet or Public Enemy), the music never comes across as pompous or overambitious.
In that sense, the album's greatest triumph is that Everclear has been able to employ such a broad palette and still maintain its musical identity. Listening to "Songs from an American Movie, Vol. One: Learning How to Smile" is almost like listening to Everclear grow up - and that, really, is the best kind of musical autobiography. ***
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
Outbound (Columbia 62178)
Being the world's greatest fusion banjo player isn't exactly a ticket to the Top 40. But with "Outbound," Bela Fleck and his band, the Flecktones, take a giant step toward mainstream accessibility. It helps that the quartet has augmented its standard lineup - banjo, saxophone, bass and synth/drum synth - with a host of guest musicians, including vocalists Shawn Colvin and Yes' Jon Anderson.
But don't take this infusion of outside talent to mean the band has dumbed its sound down. As much as the vocals might make "A Moment So Close" seem more radio-friendly than previous Fleckjams, the band's blend of Indian music, jazz, Tuvan throat singing and progressive rock is still worlds away from lowest-common-denominator pop. *** 1/2
Snake River Conspiracy
Sonic Jihad (Reprise 47383)
Goth dance music is not a sub-genre folks in the MTV mainstream are likely to be familiar with, but Snake River Conspiracy may change that. With a sound drawing equally from alt-rock, industrial and club music, the Conspiracy - actually, just singer Tobey Torres and synthesist Jason Slater - puts a bright, tuneful sheen on the music while somehow maintaining the dark energy of goth, a formula that gives "Sonic Jihad" the heft of a hit. While the duo's studio savvy adds luster to the languorously tuneful "You and Your Friend" and the kinky-but-catchy "Vulcan," the Snake River sound is strongest when applied to cover tunes, as both the Cure's "Love Song" and the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" work wonderfully well in goth dance drag. ***
Jo voz e violao (Verve 314 546 713)
When the bossa nova first broke, back in the early '60s, nobody sang the music better than Jo Gilbert. His exquisite sense of pitch made effortless work of the music's melodic intricacies, while his sound was so smooth and soothing that Miles Davis once cracked, "He could read a newspaper and sound good."
Those gifts have not diminished over time. "Jo voz e violao" not only shows how impressive Dilbert's singing remains, but it does so in the most merciless of settings. "Voz e violao" is Portuguese for "voice and guitar," and that's all this album offers. Yet Gilberto brings such warmth and insight to these bare-bones arrangements that even the likes of "Desafinado," which jazz fans have heard hundreds of times since Stan Getz made it a mid-'60s hit, takes on new life here. *** 1/2