Art Alexakis and Everclear, latecomers to the house of grunge, have been studiously freshening up ever since they moved in. And with Songs From an American Movie, Vol. One Learning How to Smile originally intended as an Alexakis solo effort the band has introduced cleanser and furniture polish into the summer cleaning, sweeping away the rough edges and brightening up the melodies, which results in the group's best-sounding album to date.
Frontman Alexakis, having just gone through a divorce, has spent a lot of time thinking about his family and his future, and those concerns fuel most of the material. From the angry but catchy "Now That It's Over" to the sweet message to his daughter, "Annabella's Song," and even on the sardonic "Wonderful" (the band's most attractive radio single since "Santa Monica"), it's clear that Alexakis has worked hard at learning how to smile. And he seems to have done it successfully along with "Wonderful," the nostalgic "AM Radio," which incorporates a sample from the early '70s soul hit "Mr. Big Stuff," and "Unemployed Boyfriend" could easily work their way up the charts. The only serious misstep is an ill-advised remake of Van Morrison's oft-played chestnut, "Brown Eyed Girl."
Musically, Alexakis has replaced the band's trademark boot-stomping heaviness with stacked vocal harmonies, looping drums, and even some orchestral strings. At times, it presents a better Everclear than anyone might have predicted. But it also exposes the group's shortcomings, both in terms of occasionally lumpy, obvious lyrics and a noticeable tendency to fall back on the same melodic ideas, song after song. That said, Alexakis should be smiling he seems to have fulfilled his promise with this disc. Anything else from here on even Volume Two is a bonus.