24. Everclear, Sparkle and Fade
When I was at the height of my imperious, combative, disgruntled twenties, my contrarian streak could lead me to come dubious judgments, at least where new music was concerned. For example, while there’s some haziness around this memory (many of my most spirited music debates took place in the wee hours of beer-soaked evenings), I expended some of my taste capital announcing to whoever had the misfortune to be across the table that Everclear was one of the more underrated bands on the day and their 1995 release, Sparkle and Fade, deserved prominent mention in any discussion of the top albums of the year. I was hardly championing some beset underdog in doing so, as the group led by Art Alexakis had a major label berth with Capitol Records and a healthy radio hit in the single “Santa Monica.” Still, as any number of music fans tripped over one another to praise the genius of the middling likes of Eddie Vedder and psychedelic flim-flam man Billy Corgan, it felt important to stand up for a band that was committed to a more direct brand of punk-inflected rock.
Everclear were from Portland rather than Seattle, but that didn’t stop most observers from including them in the rash-like grunge rock scene. It was sloppy categorizing to so. Everclear owed more to Bad Religion than any of bands that tried to capture Kurt Cobain’s echo and pass it off as their own brainstorm. The songs on Sparkle and Fade exude a commitment to the plainspoken agitation of punk, with the lyrics constantly circling around tales of disenfranchised rebellion and drug-dappled misery, very nearly to the redundancy of a concept album. The album can’t reasonably be said to be raw as a wound, but it throbs briefly and intently like skin after a Band-Aid was ripped clean off of it.
Much as Everclear’s directness was a blessed counterbalance to the pretentious nonsense lyrics that filled much of the hard rock of the day, it could also get a little wearying, with songs like “Heroin Girl” and “Chemical Smile” coming across as too on the nose, especially after repeated plays (though the latter song deserves some credit for coming remarkably close to musically channeling Hüsker Dü in convincing fashion). When, on “Her Brand New Skin,” Alexakis sings, “I do not want to be a broken record/ But I don’t want to live in the shadow of a twelve-step,” he could be expressing a valid worry about the album itself. At least those songs have a punchy tunefulness that can make the didacticism forgivable (or easy to ignore, anyway). It’s the self-congratulatory lyrics about the struggles of having a “black girlfriend” on the track “Heartspark Dollarsign” that have aged into pure embarrassment.
The album is at its best when at its simplest, exploring the youthful distance from a homogenized world that is the lifeblood of most punk. “Santa Monica” deserved to be a hit, building casually and steadily throughout, suiting the lyrics’ satisfying triumphant nihilism (“We can live beside the ocean/ Leave them far behind/ Swim out past the breakers/ Watch the world die,” that last line presumably what prompted Clear Channel Communications to temporarily ban it from its radio stations after September 11th, 2001). And “Summerland” nicely keeps up the note of isolation and necessary escape, Alexakis urging, “Forget about our jobs at the record store/ Forget about all the losers that we know/ Forget about all the memories that keep you down/ Forget about ’em, we can lose ’em in the sparkle and fade.” It’s far from revolutionary punk, but not every band needs to be the Clash.
Surprisingly, Everclear has had decent longevity, though it’s really been Alexakis and a rotating band of sidemen since the start of this century (including touring members, Wikipedia currently lists twenty-two individuals besides Alexakis who can claim membership in the band at some point). They’re also really good at mining their own past success, with at least four “best of” albums and two separate releases that find them re-recording old songs. They are also evidently unashamed about releasing truly hideous cover songs.
Milwaukee band Citizen King specialized in heavily whipped meringue of musical styles, jammy funk and punk hip-hop chief among them. When competing with cheap beer and the noisy din of boisterous Midwesterns at cramped bars, keeping the music bouncy and chunky is a pretty good idea. Brown Bag LP was the first full-length album from the band. They had their real breakthrough a few years later when they cracked the Billboard Top 40 with the single “Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out),” which also enjoyed undoubtedly lucrative placement in the first and last episodes of Malcolm in the Middle.
— An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!