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Reconstructing Smash Mouth

Maybe you know Smash Mouth only from that TV commercial where their song "All Star" creates more excitement about buying a new car than seems reasonable. Perhaps you know the band from the end of Shrek when the quartet sings the old Monkees hit "I'm a Believer," or you've heard them in heavy rotation on Radio Disney. Maybe, as a result, you dismiss Smash Mouth as a kiddie bubblegum band.

Well, you might be right about the bubblegum part, but you would be wrong about the dismissal part, for Smash Mouth is one of the great rock bands of our time, a group so devoted to the pleasures of the bouncy beat and the melodic hook that it captures the sheer exuberance of early adolescence as few others have. And who's to say that the frustrated ironies of one's twenties are any more (or any less) important than the bubbly optimism of one's early teens? Every phase of life deserves its musical echo, and we should acknowledge the genius of any artist who can provide it.

"All Star" was not always a car commercial; back in 1999, it was the best reason to listen to Top 40 radio. It begins with the message that most of us get from junior high school -- "Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me" -- and heightens that anxiety with a jittery ska beat, hip-hop scratching and a half-sung/half-toasted vocal. So the tension is tight when the rock and roll guitars come crashing in with the chorus, cutting that stretched-out rubber band and setting loose a rising, anthemic vocal that promises every picked-on 13-year-old, "Hey, now, you're an all star." The lyrics would be trite if the surging rhythmic momentum and dizzying melodic changes didn't make you feel like the surprise write-in candidate of the National League's mid-season balloting.

Don't hate them because they appeal to juveniles: Smash Mouth is the best bubblegum going.
Don't hate them because they appeal to juveniles: Smash Mouth is the best bubblegum going.

But every idealistic 13-year-old must become a cynical 19-year-old before he can become an adult, and part of that process is rejecting any evidence that you were once 13. It's no coincidence that all the 13-year-olds who bought Fush Yu Mang are now 19. Although they sold 5.7 million copies of their first two albums, 1997's Fush Yu Mang and 1999's Astro Lounge, the group's fifth album (following 2001's Smash Mouth and a collection of early demos) has yet to sell 50,000 copies. And so Spin, in its new issue, has gleefully declared that Smash Mouth's new album, Get the Picture?, is the Flop of the Year.

Nonetheless, Get the Picture? (Interscope) is a terrific rock and roll album, Smash Mouth's best work yet, and the year's best realization of the old Beatles/Beach Boys dream that if you fuse melody and rhythm into an inseparable, galloping hook, you can capture the thrill of adolescence. Smash Mouth nods in that direction by contributing a half-assed version of the Beatles' "Getting Better" to the new soundtrack for The Cat in the Hat; a much better Beatles tribute is "Hang On," the lead-off track on Get the Picture?

This song makes an oblique reference to September 11 in the line "Everywhere I go, people are the same / they just want to know everything will be okay." From this vague sentiment, songwriter Greg Camp spins a specific musical drama. He creates a creeping sense of dread on the verses with the help of a stop-and-go ska bass line and a simmering vocal. A chiming keyboard lightens the mood on the bridge, and the song busts open on the chorus. Then the bass switches to straight eights, pushing the new guitar riff and the boiling-over singer into the rousing admonition, "Hang on, hang on, hang on." The effect is not unlike the Beatles' "I Feel Fine" or "Eight Days a Week."

But Smash Mouth isn't just another '60s-rock revival band. The San Jose, California, quartet comes out of the same punk-ska scene that produced No Doubt, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fishbone, Sublime, Sugar Ray, Reel Big Fish and the Dance Hall Crashers. This scene provided the perfect solution to a problem that had bedeviled punk and alternative rock since they first emerged in 1976. To create a necessary distance from their predecessors, the early punks had to reject both the music and the romanticism of the '60s. That provided a fresh start at first, but it soon became a trap, for no music can grow without roots in the past, and songs can't reflect reality unless they include gratification as well as frustration.

But how could alt-rockers escape that dead end without kowtowing to the music of their baby-boomer parents and their baby-boomer record company bosses? Ska provided the way out. Here was a music with a rich past (ska fanatics will gladly regale you with the details about obscure Jamaican 45s) and a sound that exuded pleasure from its infectiously melodic dance rhythms. It had a streetwise energy that was easily adaptable to punk rock's do-it-yourself ethos. Best of all, it had never been claimed by the baby-boomer generation -- at least stateside -- and thus could be considered Gen X's own.

Smash Mouth and No Doubt were hardly purists, however. They were quite willing to set sing-along pop choruses atop the push-and-pull rhythms. For hard-core ska fans, this was an unwelcome development, because these American melodies undeniably watered down the rootsy, Jamaican content in the music. For fans of catchy, Top 40 pop singles, however, it was pure delight. Here was a chance to turn on the radio and to hear -- instead of suburban angst, urban machismo or pubescent fantasy -- three-minute eruptions of joy with hummable melodies so firmly linked to bouncy beats that it was impossible to disentangle them.

You can hear the payoff from this strategy on the new No Doubt anthology, The Singles 1992-2003, 15 heady examples of pop-ska. You can hear it on the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' overlooked masterpiece, 2000's Pay Attention. You can hear it on "You're My Number One," the first single from Get the Picture? The song comes from Neil Diamond, that famous Rastaman who supplied "Red, Red Wine" to UB40 and "I'm a Believer" to Smash Mouth.

This time Smash Mouth joins one of its ska heroes, the English Beat's Ranking Roger, who adds some patois toasting to the authentic island groove nailed by bassist Paul DeLisle and drummer Michael Urbano. But Greg Camp can't resist adding sci-fi synth sounds on guitar and keys, and lead singer Steve Harwell can't resist the Brill Building giddiness of Diamond's original melody. The give and take between the pop and the ska is so volatile that the song appears twice -- as a ska-heavy track and as a pop-friendly "radio remix."

Smash Mouth benefits from a brave uncoupling of the singer-songwriter formula. At a time when songwriters with limited voices and vocalists with limited vocabularies insist on singing their own material, this group has adopted a more reasonable division of labor. Camp writes the songs, and Harwell sings them.

This is the best of both worlds, for Camp is a studio rat who spends hours cobbling together bits and pieces into ingenious hooks, while Harwell is a natural front man whose charisma and burly baritone blossom in the spotlight. So Camp crafts the infectious choruses for such new songs as "Whole Lotta Love," "Looking for a Wall" and "105," and then wisely turns them over to Harwell, who milks them for every drop of pleasure.

Don't let a bad case of hipness prevent you from partaking of such gratification. There's no reason to sacrifice 13-year-old pleasures as you add the experiences of being 19 or 26 or 37. After all, growing old should be a process of addition, not substitution.

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