Oregon Trail

Over the course of three major-label albums (and a few indie ones before that,) Art Alexakis, the leader and chief songwriter of Portland, Ore., band Everclear, has continually tried to straddle the gulf between introspective storytelling and flat-out thrash.

It sort of makes sense when you take into account the fact that the late-30s California-bred Alexakis was no doubt checking out and hanging out during Los Angeles' and San Francisco's late-1970s and early '80s punk rock boom. It was an era when bands such as X and the Avengers combined coffeehouse confessional symbolist poetry with driving search-and-destroy rhythms, and that mix of Beat-Generation-lyrics-meet-Blank-Generation-sounds has been a hallmark of Everclear's urgent music throughout their nearly 10-year history.

Having lost several people close to him (including a brother) to drug-related deaths before kicking his own habit in the years preceding his forming Everclear, Alexakis has a tendency to, if not romanticize, then at least give some sort of poetic imagery and dignity to the down and out. His glimpses into the shadier side of West Coast life was evident on such songs as their 1995 hit, "Santa Monica," and '97's "I Will Buy You a New Life" and also can be heard on the new album on the haunting and understated "Thrift Store Chair" (RealAudio excerpt).

A rumination on a relationship hitting a rocky patch, "Thrift Store Chair" opens with Alexakis pleading, "Baby, go to bed, put out the light/ We both know if we talk anymore, we'll end up in a great big fight," and its stark intimacy is touching.

Alexakis also tackles real-life romance on the rocking "Unemployed Boyfriend," in which the hero attempts to pick up a punk rock chick in the unemployment office by telling her, "I will never be like those other guys/ I will never be your unemployed boyfriend." The track revels in prototypical Everclear revved-up punk-pop, yet, on this surprisingly varied CD, Alexakis and colleagues Craig Montoya (bass) and Greg Eklund (drums) have more up their sleeves than just nods to the glory days of punk.

Eclectic is the key word here, with the trio leaping from down-in-the holler country (the waltzing "The Honey Moon Song") to full-fledged pop in "AM Radio" (RealAudio excerpt), the latter of which ironically extols the virtues of '70s music and incorporates a loop from Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff." There's also a cover of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" that gives the gentle, mid-tempo late-'60s classic a jagged, off-kilter energy. And, on "Here We Go Again" (RealAudio excerpt) snippets of what sounds like Public Enemy cut in and out of a heavily R&B-influenced song. How's that for a run through the decades?

While love- and life-torn Alexakis might lyrically be working familiar terrain here, he has the smarts to place his odes to abuse and regret into an intriguing assortment of different contexts, making this album well worth listening to — and proving the highly visible depths of Everclear's skills.