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On the Sunny Side of Success

[whitespace] Smash mouth
Photo by Sean Murphy

Breaking the Mold: Success hasn't spoiled Smash mouth (left to right, Kevin Coleman, Steve Harwell, Paul De Lisle and Greg Camp), whose second album is better than its first.

San Jose's Smash mouth takes a wry look at its own success on 'Astro Lounge'

By Gina Arnold

I REMEMBER the exact moment I figured out that San Jose's own Smash mouth was--to quote Wayne and Garth--worthy. It was autumn 1997, and I had just surfaced from the Shinjuku station at one of Tokyo's Times-Square-times-10 corners, when I was confronted by a huge stack of giant color LED video screens that framed the whole side of a skyscraper.

As usual, all the screens were playing the same thing, blinking and screaming a single song: Smash mouth's "Walking on the Sun." As the image of the band members driving around in a cherry roadster looked down in quadruple-quadruplicate at a thousand Japanese people crossing the street, I suddenly realized that--local or not--Smash mouth was fantastic.

The song just sounded great, particularly because, prior to hearing Smash mouth in Japan, I really had figured that rock was finally dead. That year, 1997, was otherwise notable for the profusion of crap that dominated the airwaves. The world was being taken over by the Spice Girls and Celine Dion, and even the few plain old four-piece rock bands that remained--like the Bay Area's other big act of 1997, Third Eye Blind--only made rock & roll look like such serious phony business.

Smash mouth, however, harked back to the days when rock & roll was all about a bunch of dumb guys having hot fun in the summertime. And "Walking on the Sun," with a loungy retro-hook and casually appropriate lyrics, was the kind of timeless and placeless song that, 20 years from now, will be revived in clubs and on oldies radio--recalled with great fondness and love.

I'VE BEEN a fan of Smash mouth ever since. But being a rock critic is a funny thing. The longer you do it, the harder it is to say nice things about a band. You start out being a critic because you truly love rock & roll, but as Brutus says in Shakespeare: in the end, you come to bury people, not to praise them.

Criticizing things is, of course, just a hell of a lot easier than praising them. The adjectives come more easily. For one thing, when you say a record sucks, not much is at stake--and you can always say later you were wrong. But when you declare right off the bat that a record is good, thus possibly inspiring someone to run out and spend their money, you'd better be right or you'll end up looking like a fool.

Secondly, in this day and age, all praise tends to resemble hype. There's such an overload of advertising and marketing that everyone sees through the haze of hype. If you praise something, even a kid of 5 probably thinks, "Who's paying you to say that?"

In short, positive reviews are suspect--especially one about Smash mouth, which labors under the double disadvantage of being (A) a local band, i.e., a known quantity and thus inherently unromantic, and (B) the owner of a hit so large, so inescapable and so damn catchy that the obvious inference is that the group should just give up altogether rather than try and equal or match it. There is, after all, a well-known phenomenon in rock called "the second-album slump," and Smash mouth is exactly the type of band to fall victim to such a letdown.

With all these caveats in mind, you can rest assured that I don't say that Smash mouth's new LP, Astro Lounge (Interscope), is good lightly. And in fact, Astro Lounge isn't good. It's great. It's astonishing, even. For how could a band that had so clearly seemed--like Third Eye Blind--to have "just gotten lucky" make a record this consistent, this much fun to listen to, this evocative of the here and now?

Jeez, they must have talent or something. Not that I was ever really a Smash mouth basher, even before my epiphany in Japan, but the band's major-label debut, Fush Yu Mang, did not impress me as a lasting contribution to American culture. The hit was wonderful, but the follow-up (a cover of War's "Why Can't We Be Friends?") was a real throwaway. Smash mouth--lumped at the time with a number of ska-y, skate-y, punk-rocky trendoids--didn't exactly reek of longevity.

And yet Astro Lounge arrives as a last-minute-of-the-millennium classic, a goofy, jolly blend of influences that somehow manages to carve a unique sound out of a melange of retro instruments and faintly familiar hooks. The first track, "All Right," quotes the opening chords from the Shirelles song "Chapel of Love," then updates them with a farfisa organ and some sound effects. Elsewhere, the band conjures up the Beatles, Esquivel and Question Mark and the Mysterians--without ever really sounding like any of them.

ONE OF THE MAJOR problems most bands have with second albums is that having created one record about their lives before success, they find they now have nothing to say, especially since they've spent the intervening two years on the road, doing the same thing night after night. Smash mouth has dealt with this problem admirably. Astro Lounge comments continually on the vicissitudes of success, which the band seems to have taken with a big huge pinch of salt.

Indeed, on Astro Lounge, Smash mouth continually compares being so-called rock stars to coming from another planet. The band members have clearly taken a lot of grief from jealous peers who've written off the band's success as a fluke. Instead of wailing about the meanness of petty people, however, Smash mouth has adopted a more cautious line. "Who did you know coming up? Who will you know going down?" singer Steve Harwell asks wryly. About getting on the radio, he observes, "It's a cattle call/In 15 minutes, you're a Neanderthal."

"Diggin' Your Scene" questions people who treat the band members weirdly just because they're riding high now. And "All Star" (my personal favorite on the album and also the first single) deals with the fallout of success: "Your brain gets smart, but your head gets dumb." The chorus, "All that glitters is gold/Only shooting stars break the mold," is so indestructible, we'll probably all still be humming it in 2020. When it comes to writing hits, lightning is about to strike twice.

Numerous songs on Astro Lounge stick in the head almost as well as "All Star." Many of them use that trademark Smash mouth organ sound and a huge amount of echo. Harwell's distinctive voice reminds me at times of a lower-voiced David Lowery of Cracker or a more American-sounding Mick Jones of the Clash. Harwell has kept his suburban California intonations, which somehow fit the banter that passes for lyrics here. Which is not to say that the lyrics--some of which sound like they were written by Mulder on The X-Files--are bad. They're just a little on the lightweight side.

Only one song on Astro Lounge grates on my ears--the reggae number "Road Man," which is very much in the vein of the band Sublime. I just can't stand it when white people talk "jah," but that's my own personal prejudice: I hate Sublime too. Astro Lounge also includes one cover, "Can't Get Enough of You, Baby," which, like "Why Can't We Be Friends?" is a natural encore--a throwaway.

But with those slight exceptions, Astro Lounge is a wonderful album. It boasts about 700 hooks, all of them faintly but not quite recognizable. But the thing I like best about the album is its--for lack of a better term--San Jose-ness. Astro Lounge is a truly unpretentious record, and what could be more San Jose? In some deep way, Smash mouth will forever evoke the late-millennium Silicon Valley lifestyle, from the retro-futuristic musical sounds to the confusing sudden influx of money that has fattened the wallets of young entrepreneurs.

Amazingly, Smash mouth doesn't stoop to ripping off "Walking on the Sun" in any discernible way, although many songs--especially "Then the Morning Comes"--do repeat its pre-apocalyptic take on life. Really, what makes Smash mouth so timely may well be the band's openmindedness. "What do you do when opportunity knocks?/When success stalks and along comes fame?" Smash mouth asks on "Home." "Do you open the door or watch in horror through the peep hole in horror till they go away?/Lottery, poverty or a commodity, what's it gonna be?"

Few questions have captured the options of most young people today quite as succinctly, and I hope that Smash mouth's detractors get the point. There's no question that being in a rock band these days is a lot less crazy and romantic than it used to be, but Smash mouth is to be commended for keeping its sense of humor about that state of affairs--and for coming up with another surprise summer smash.

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From the June 3-9, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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