Down and Out in Summerland
Everclear, Sparkle and Fade (Capitol/Tim Kerr Records)REVIEWED BY RODNEY WELCH
I never heard of this Oregon trio until Janeanne Garofalo, my idea of America's Sweetheart, mentioned the Sparkle and Fade disc on "The Conan O'Brien Show" a few weeks ago. I'm forever in her debt.
This major-label debut is loud, fast, riveting and if you bother with the lyrics perfectly depressing; a West Coast version of Lou Reed's Berlin or Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. But where those junkie classics mined a vein of moody, slo-mo despair, Everclear opts for full-throttle rhythmic attack, and I say all power to them.
The soaring assault of lead guitarist Art Alexakis and bassist Craig Montoya, and the crisp, propulsive drumwork of Greg Eklund, put Everclear squarely in the tradition of punky sonic anomie that extends from the Sex Pistols to the Replacements to Nirvana.
Over the course of these 14 first-person songs, the singer stars in what amounts to a circular road movie peopled by lovers and friends who are just as fucked-up as he is, all on a restless search for whatever new buzz the American landscape will yield.
The album charges through towns and cities on a path littered with dead leaves, dead lovers, dead parents and kids; falling, swimming and drowning become recurring metaphors for tragic overload. Moods and viewpoints shift from victim to victimizer, abuser to co-dependent, escapist to realist sometimes all in the same song. Our narrator is either kicking his girlfriend out, pleading with her to stay, or observing the way her body looked when the cops rolled up.
Starting with a jangly Thurston Moore-style riff, "Electra Made Me Blind" quickly bursts into life and sets the album's pace and tone; the singer leaves home for L.A., only to find himself stuck in the same bright, dope-lined hell. "Living isn't a simple thing/I know ways to make it easier," he sings, and the next song makes his point; he laments the loss of his "Heroin Girl," who used to "give me what I need for my disease."
No sooner is she hauled away by the paramedics than the tables are turned with perfect irony: in "You Make Me Feel Like a Whore," it is the abusive singer's turn to be used, dreaming of the day when he can play the pimp.
This is only the least fatal of his dreams; the lovers of "Summerland" decide to leave the past behind for a new town, a town "where you can be just what you want to be." In their case, that means a good-looking corpse: lovers who "fall, glimmer, sparkle and fade" in one final glorious blast.
In "The Twistinside" our narrator is at the end of his adolescence, and the end of his rope. Do you get a new tattoo, find a decent job, or just order another drink and resign yourself to defeat? "Her Brand New Skin," where the singer sneers at his cleaned-up ex-girlfriend, is his answer: he has no desire to "live in the shadow of a 12-step."
With the haunting "Pale Green Stars," we shuttle ahead a few years to domestic life, or what's left of it. A dad, preparing to leave his family, thinks of how his daughter ponders the fluorescent stars on her ceiling fashioning her own imaginative escape from the world she inherited.
"My Sexual Life," the last track and the best one, neatly brings us back to where we almost began: that jangly guitar is heard again, a little more distant and echoey, in a brilliantly evocative variation on the Eagles' "Lyin' Eyes."
Here, in the small-town world the singer has never really escaped, sex and deceit revolve in the same weary cycle:
You always say
The songs, jointly credited to the three band members, aren't always as mysterious lyrically as they could be. There are times when I would have preferred a little more obscurity, a little less naive nihilism and fewer punk poses. The band could stand to vary its upfront, direct approach.
Certainly, the range of this record with its sure sense of people, place and mood, and its surging feeling of release proves they are capable of broadening their scope. From atomic beginning to somber end, Sparkle and Fade stakes out a Kerouacian tale of down-and-outers with pity and slashing musical power. It's a fascinating trip.
Rodney Welch frequently writes reviews for POINT.