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.