Everclear: Invisible Stars

Art Alexakis and his band go back to their '90s basics for an album that would've fit in snugly next to Sparkle and Fade and So Much for the Afterglow. This isn't great stuff, but it's highly listenable and a lot of fun.


Invisible Stars

Label: eOne
US Release Date: 2012-06-26
UK Release Date: 2012-06-26

If you're clicking on this review, there's a good chance that you remember Everclear from their '90s heyday. They were a fixture on modern rock radio back then with hit singles like "Santa Monica (Watch the World Die)", "Father of Mine", "I Will Buy You a New Life", and "Wonderful." There's also a better than even chance that you lost track of them sometime early in the '00s, like most of their audience. Singer-songwriter Art Alexakis has kept the Everclear name alive since then, even as the past decade has been a rough one for the band.

After 2003's Slow Motion Daydream failed to continue the band's previous success, they were dropped by Capitol Records. Welcome to the Drama Club from 2006 didn't do all that much for the band on a creative or commercial level. Since then, Alexakis has been musically fumbling around, looking for a way to recapture the old glory. In a Different Light, released in 2009, was a spectacularly ill-conceived album that featured the band re-recording its older tracks in gentler, more "mature" arrangements. In the process, did they leech all the energy and urgency out of those songs? You bet they did. Then the band recorded a handful of their hits yet again (back in their original rockin' arrangements), along with a bunch of covers, for 2011's Return to Santa Monica. Now Invisible Stars comes along, and it finds Alexakis going back to basics. Since "quieter and more mature" failed to generate any sort of audience response, he's swung back in the other direction. The album's 12 tracks are all new songs (thank heavens for small favors), but they sound exactly like what you'd expect from classic Everclear. These are punchy hard-rock songs with enough pop hooks to be catchy.

Opener "Tiger in a Burning Tree" is a short intro song (under two minutes) that features both chunky distorted guitar chords and a strummed, clean riff. It's a serviceable song that's nearly undermined by Alexakis' insistence on speaking, or maybe kinda-sorta rapping, the verses. But the guitar tone definitely announces the band's intentions for the album. The fast, upbeat second track, "Falling in a Good Way", finds Alexakis sliding back into his storyteller persona, as the verses introduce a head-spinning number of characters and discuss what happened to them after high school. He concludes in the chorus that "Life goes south when your pretty goes away / The best that you can get is when you're falling in a good way." It's telling that this idea comes up again later on the album in the overbearing screed of "The Golden Rule", which finds Alexakis casting himself as a young, privileged white rich kid. Amongst all sorts of heavy-handed sarcasm, he shouts "Pretty makes everything better / Pretty makes everything clean / Pretty makes everything a little bit easier / Pretty makes not pretty look pretty fuckin' obscene!"

Despite Alexakis' apparent issues with aging gracefully, "The Golden Rule" is one of Invisible Stars few outright missteps. Mostly these are strong songs that would've fit right in with the band's '90s hits. First single "Be Careful What You Ask For" sounds like a lost b-side from So Much for the Afterglow. In fact, it sounds like the band decided to marry the wobbly, siren-like guitar riff (here played on a synth) from "Everything to Everyone" to that album's deep cut "Sunflowers in Europe". But nakedly re-writing older material is definitely a step above just re-recording old songs. The mid-tempo "Santa Ana Wind" essentially recasts "I Will Buy You a New Life" as an introspective power ballad about wanting to be a better person and the joys of living in Los Angeles.

A couple of the songs manage to step above '90s nostalgia, mostly due to Alexakis' lyrics working well. A lot of Everclear's original charm came from Alexakis' ability to make his lyrics sound personal and confessional. "I am Better Without You" taps into that vein again, as he sings about knowing his love interest is not good for him. He sounds like he's trying to convince himself that this woman who is bad for him in every way but the sex, and is someone he should leave. It's not exactly fresh material, but his knack for detail elevates the song. The "Civil Rights history via my friend who's an old black man" lyrics of "Jackie Robinson" are shamelessly manipulative, but damn if they don't work. Alexakis relates the story of Luther Jackson Green, who as a child went to see Jackie Robinson play even as Robinson was hated by racist white baseball fans. Later on, "Luther Jackson Green / Went to law school 1963 / In the summer between / He worked in Alabama with Martin Luther King." The song concludes with Green watching the 2008 election with Alexakis and being so damn happy about Obama's election. There is no way this story should work as anything but pure cheese, but Alexakis pulls it off through sheer conviction.

It's hard not to be cynical about what Alexakis and his band are trying to do here, but the fact remains that Invisible Stars is an album Everclear probably should've made a long time ago. This isn't great stuff, but it's highly listenable and a lot of fun. If the band had followed up the minor sonic experimentation of 2000's dual Songs From an American Movie albums with something like this, they might have been alternative rock survivors like the Foo Fighters. Instead, they're spending the summer of 2012 on tour with fellow '90s also-rans the Gin Blossoms, Sugar Ray, Lit, and Marcy Playground.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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