Everclear's Art Alexakis has never been your typical rock & roll slacker. He's a decade older than the majority of his alt-rock peers, and he's more enterprising than most of them. That's never been more ever-clear than on Songs from an American Movie Vol. One: Learning How to Smile, the band's fourth album. The first single, ''Wonderful,'' is rock very much of the moment it has the generic, impersonal brawniness of a routine Third Door Twenty release, down to its irritatingly ingratiatingly ''na na na'' chorus. But the lyrics, about a child watching his screaming parents edge their way toward divorce, are sombre and heavy. Reminiscing about his '70s youth in ''AM Radio,'' Alexakis seems like a premature codger, dismissing the internet and compact discs and mooning over the days when Top 40 stations brought joy, and manhood began at your first Led Zeppelin concert. Again striking a different chord from most mosh rock, the song also incorporates a sample here, the pumping horns from Jean Knight's 1971 R&B classic ''Mr. Big Stuff.'' The usage is very effective, lending the song a carnival atmosphere rare to Everclear's music.
The rest of the disc is similarly adventurous. A loose-knit concept album something only Alexakis' and earlier generations would even remember it opens with a song in which the musician acknowledges the positive changes in his life, which include reveling in the sound of his young daughter's laughter. From there, the record works its way back in time, via songs about his childhood (''AM Radio''), wayward youth (''Learning How to Smile''), marriage (''The Honeymoon Song''), and romantic turmoil (''Now That It's Over''). Alexakis' confessions of drug busts and drinking binges take on a knowing realism in light of the now-sober musician's one-time addiction.If there is a theme that connects the songs, it's actually the communal nature of music or, to be specific, how music comforts us, helps articulate feelings when our own words won't suffice, and provides us with an ongoing soundtrack for our lives. In need of solace in ''Thrift Store Chair,'' Alexakis seeks out an old John Prine record, an in ''Otis Redding'' he yearns for the voice of a dead soul singer to rock him to sleep and bring him some peace. In this context, the band's version of Van Morrison's recycled-to-death ''Brown-Eyed Girl'' is more than an attempt to score a quick hit. When Alexakis sings it, he's not merely remaking an oldie. ''I hear a song/It makes me think of a girl I used to know,'' he begins, before breaking into Morrison's ode to being smitten. Yes, Alexakis is covering the song, but he's also acting out what it's like to sing along with a nostalgic favorite.
Unfortunately, ambitious themes and lyrics do not a great album make. Everclear's success has always been a bit thorny: It's gratifying that someone of Alexakis' age (he as 33 in 1995, when the band scored its first smash) can resurrect himself amid such a youth-driven market, but baffling that he's accomplished it with music that's been, to be kind, mundane. As funny and laconic as he can be, Alexakis nevertheless has an ordinary, faded-flannel voice and composes predominately standard-issue power punk.
Songs from an American Movie attempts to expand that sonic palette. The arrangements lurch from unplugged folksiness to orchestrated Sinatraesque balladeering to faux late-period Beach Boys. hen he's backed by acoustic guitars and mandolins and creating a back-porch ambiance, Alexakis could be a cut-rate Steve Earle. But none of these gimmicks can obscure the reality that the melodies are once again a drab, uninspiring lot. For all its conceptual cleverness, the band's ''Brown -Eyed Girl'' is ham-fisted and slick, exactly the sort of generic corporate rock Everclear were supposed to be rebelling against. Alexakis' designs don't end here, by the way: As the title hints, Vol. One will spawn a sequel, an album of harder-edged material to be released in the fall. So far, though, Alexakis' first Movie is in need of a stronger score. B-