*** Smile "Maquee" Cargo/Headhunter
Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.
Starting with the puzzling album title, there's something slippery about this trio from Tustin.
Smile appropriates such commercially proven '90s techniques as grunge heaviness, Sonic Youth-style guitar clangor and dissonance, and the juxtaposition of pop melody against an abrasive, punk-inspired sonic backdrop.
At the same time, its lyrics view youth-cultural trends with a jaundiced eye, notably in the sourpussed "Rock Anthem for the Retarded Teenage Hipster Population."
Rather than take hope in the prospect of playing music to public acclaim, Smile singer-guitarist Mike Rosas looks at a downside in which success will only leave him subject to betrayal and backbiting.
In a more innocent era, Bruce Springsteen could stand at the brink of stardom and exult, in mid-song, "the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!" Smile embarks on its career in a more jaded time, musing gloomily in "Papaya Clearance Sale" about the costs of an acclaim it isn't sure will be worth having:
So just remember, you'll be hated in this town
When everybody everywhere thinks you're the greatest thing around.
Smile begins the album by announcing, in "Rock Anthem," "Before we start I'd like to say that we're all done"--an opening gambit that echoes (as Rosas' chesty voice occasionally does) the tone of Agent Orange singer Mike Palm on the excellent "Living in Darkness," a similarly defeatist album from 1981. Against a woozy groove akin to the Breeders' hit "Cannonball," Smile decides, in "Until(?)", to move ahead warily with its rock career:
Mr. Spotlight, shine your light down, down on my town.
As long as your light won't make me uptight, I guess it's all right.
With attitudes like those, it's hard to know when to trust Smile's intentions. The slow, heavily tromping "Staring at the Sun" lumbers down the middle of the stardom-bound path that the band elsewhere professes to shun. With made-to-order trippy, oblique lyrics, it sounds like something Stone Temple Pilots stole from Led Zeppelin. Is it a parody? If so, it's done straightforwardly, with no overt giveaway. Maybe Smile really wants a hit, after all. Or maybe it just wants to show how easy it is to succumb to hit formulas.
"Lemonade" is a grunge-pop confection that might be an earnest bid for a hit about troubled romance--after all, Rosas sings it with the full-on, anguished ardor of a Bob Mould. But what to make of (deliberately?) smarmy, comically absurd lyrics like:
Although it seemed we'd be together long as sun and moon and earth were in the sky,
Goodnight, my star, you'll always be as lemonade inside my heart.
Again, one is left wondering whether it's a sincere effort, or a '90s heir to "Elenore," the nugget that the Turtles recorded in 1968 as a parody of cliched pop love songs, only to wind up with a big hit from a public that heard only the enticing harmonies and hooks and never got the joking send-up.
What makes "Maquee" a frequently bracing album is Smile's sincere interest in revving up a bracing and adventurous sound. Drummer Scott Reeder's beats are propulsive but slightly off-balance, slipping in accents where you wouldn't expect them to fall.
With the help of producer/engineers Eric Garten and Geoff Harrington (both of Orange County), the guitar and bass have commanding presence and slicing intensity--witness the nasty, Lennonesque guitar break at the end of "She." The band takes a surprising dip into the art-rock pond with "Pictures Made Past," a spacey ballad that applies the fractured guitar sonics of a Robert Fripp or Fred Frith to a song that wafts along dreamily like the Beatles' "Sun King."
It adds up to an album that is familiar enough to capture KROQ-tuned ears, but holds enough quirks and unexpected turns to make you wonder just what these guys are up to, anyway.
Cargo Records, 4901-906 Morena Blvd., San Diego, CA 92117-3432.