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The Boston Phoenix Afterglow?

Everclear Still Sparkle

By Clea Simon

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Art Alexakis has his hooks in, as the Beach Boys-style intro to his band's third Capitol release, So Much for the Afterglow, makes clear. Segueing from the title track's overlapping voices into a vintage grunge-guitar crunch, Alexakis sails from one West Coast tradition right into another, piling fuel onto the popular criticism that the Portland trio are somehow a scheming get-rich-quick plot, a higher-octane version of Hanson for the noise-pop crowd or a calculated cash-in on the post-Cobain chasm. But laying the bitchy sellout scandal talk aside -- judging content, that is, rather than context -- these pop traditions are not anything Everclear have ever hid. And the scab-scratching pleasure of their manhandled melodies certainly dates back farther than Nirvana.

Cobain wore his heart on his amplifier, but at times his music was predictable, showing its vulnerable belly under the muscle of sonic assault. Alexakis may be more guarded, but his cunning is teaching him to transcend his own formula. Does that sound cynical? Say, instead, that the singer/guitarist has spent the last two years working on his craft, and that he's seeking to translate his passion into a contemporary vocabulary. Trying for more than, well, a sparkle and fade.

Not that the basics have changed. Two years after the big hits, Everclear still mine that Hüsker Dü vein of sound collage, letting an almost incomprehensible barrage of noise obscure and protect the sweetest turns of melody -- a kind of aural Abstract Expressionism that lets the tune emerge only slowly and still unjaded. This was achieved, in songs like "Heroin Girl," through intelligent lyrics and those pop hooks again, all overrun by feedback, power chords, and tempos that often fling the prettiness against the listener. Throughout Afterglow, the same effect shows different facets: the hell-for-leather "Amphetamine"; the instrumental "El Distorto de Melodica," with its over-the-top distortion; even the Nuggets-like tremolo-heavy radio track "Everything to Everyone." Alexakis can resort to the Cobain formula of sudden dropouts, letting his slightly burred voice stand momentarily exposed or cascade over itself in surprising harmony (as in "Sunflowers"), but he's learning to mix it up with different kinds of intensity.

Afterglow finds him venturing into sonic exploration, augmenting the two-fisted guitar with the kind of sound play that doesn't come out of nights in the clubs (more fuel for the populists). Yes, the calm almost invariably still leads to a storm in an Everclear song, but this time out, the thunder is often broken up by country fingerings ("Why I Don't Believe in God") and unusual (for punk pop) instrumentations (the nursery-rhyme string sawings of "Amphetamine" and the organ on "I Will Buy You a New Life"). Country-tinged roots -- perhaps via R.E.M. and the Band -- emerge on these tracks, in a drum's lone martial tattoo, in the hint of a merry-go-round organ, in the continued insistence on raw sound as better. Only it's a broader (a more organic, if you will) definition of raw.

If only the lyrical content reached as deep. Alexakis will likely never write happy songs, but his addiction behind him, his connection to that world's desperation and craving has given way to a somewhat jarring distance from the lives he chronicles. "I don't want to live in the shadow of a 12-step," he (or, okay, his persona) sang out last album. On Afterglow, he complains that the Prozac doesn't do it for him anymore.

Even the family misery he mined for Sparkle and Fade has begun to pale. "Father of Mine" confronts an absent parent directly, and by doing so it forfeits the subtlety of slow disclosure that made the tragedy (fictional or not) in Sparkle and Fade's "Queen of the Air" so telling. When the venom does surface, it's near impossible not to get carried along. (The bonus track's refrain of "I'm going to be hating you for Christmas" should be this season's guilty air-guitar treat.) But the lion's share of the work, this time out, seems to have been put into the music; the words exist primarily to hold those harmonies as they come round again. That's a flaw, one for which all the adrenaline and brave new turf can't compensate. And Everclear have stumbled, though they've far from faded.

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