Kleenex Girl Wonder: After Mathematics

Doug Wallen

Kleenex Girl Wonder

After Mathematics

Label: March
US Release Date: 2002-03-12

Under the moniker Kleenex Girl Wonder, hometaping wunderkind Graham Smith has been churning out records for the pop underground with startling prolificacy since the mid-'90s, when he was still in high school. In fact, it was partially his ripe age and his stylistic resemblance to a young Robert Pollard that first turned people's heads.

But there was something more. Right from the start, Smith was always a supreme smart-ass, growing haughtier and more egomaniacal with each passing year. He named one album Graham Smith is the Coolest Person Alive and then obnoxiously claimed full responsibility for all elements in the credits for another album, Ponyoak. And while a lot of that could be seen as tongue-in-cheek, Smith also built a personal reputation for snide behavior, causing speculation that maybe he half-believes all of those absurd ego trips.

If Graham Smith the Personality is a bit of a bear, it has typically proven to be worth enduring in return for Graham Smith the Songwriter. Even Smith's detractors have to admit that the kid shows talent well beyond his years, albeit often squandered on juvenile posturing. And if Smith's attitude has yet to mature, his musical craft is well on its way, gradually shifting from the lo-fi ephemera of Guided By Voices worship to the more classicist pop leanings of the Kinks and Hollies.

With 1999's Ponyoak and a subsequent pair of EPs -- Anne Marie and Why I Write Such Good Songs (all released on March Records) -- Smith seemed to finally be finding a distinct voice, if settling into repetition. He then mixed things up with Smith, a double-CD collection toying with the concept of semi-autobiographical narrative, detailing his teen years with goofy aplomb.

After Mathematics, his latest KGW album, finds Smith as his most antsy yet, tossing cheeky hip-hop and homespun electronic tomfoolery into a standard formula of acoustic twang and ironic lyrics. The opening "I'm Pregnant" is plain enough -- musically catchy and thematically silly -- but next arrives "Ain't a Damn Thing Changed", a twitching gem of unwound genre codes.

It starts with a Prince touch, sweetly zipping through sly lines like "You're running out of oxygen / Cuz everybody's holding their breath". Guest unknown Zarathustra [sic] does some breathy R&B singing, recalling Har Mar Superstar's contributions to the Busy Signals. The song is funny, funky, and even somewhat affecting, with jaded broken-heart charm. The chorus is oddly self-defensive, repeating, "Ain't a damn thing changed / KGW still runs this game" and later "You try to copy but it's not the same", before throwing in expletives for effect (earning the album cover's bogus-looking Parental Advisory warning?).

Things are back to normal with "Why I Write Such Good Songs", title track to the aforementioned EP. It first feels like Smith's greatest bragging session -- "No one can sing like me / No one can play guitar like me / No one says the things I say / And no one else ever feels this way" -- but then becomes insecure, depending on how you read the following -- "I can't explain myself / It would sound much better from someone else / But you chose me and you were wrong / And that's why I write such good songs".

Lyrical analysis aside, the song is impossibly catchy and utterly irresistible, rivaled on this album only by "Amelia". On that fuzzed gem, Smith alliteratively pleads "Ameliorate me, Amelia" over simple garage riffs, rhyming "innovation" with "hesitation" and "trepidation" after making mention of his "piebald past". Our guy's been to college, see? Triple-word scores abound on this album, so you'd better bring a thesaurus.

On the electronic tip, "The Intentional Fallacy" is hypnotic, if rudimentary, until a lisping joke rap at the end sends it over the top. Likewise, crisp beats straddle lilting guitar on "No Melody" for a nice instrumental break, though Smith sings the two-word title a few times. That leads into "The Pathetic Fallacy," a track that's harder to decipher than almost anything Smith has done. It starts lightly sugary, breaking into sad-sack falsetto (courtesy of guest Matt Culler?), a mid-song lull, and then straight-up rapping from [Unintelligble] [sic], whose effects-dampened rant is more irritating than innovative.

Having been weaned on his own quirky recording identity, Smith is now exhibiting growing pains, unsure where to take KGW next. That's what makes After Mathematics so fascinatingly uneven, split as it is between reliable craft and foiled career reconstruction.

For his next trick, who knows what Graham Smith -- self-proclaimed "official rock 'n' roll marsupial since 1993" on his website -- has up his sleeve. But even after so many missteps, his past bulls-eyes are reason enough to continue following his career. From here on out, it's just an ongoing battle between his inner adolescent and his maturing sensibilities. On After Mathematics's closing "Fitzcarraldo", he offhandedly sings, "I still believe that somewhere there's a man in me." So do we, Smith, and here's hoping he's got something great in store for us.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.