Kleenex Girl Wonder Secret Thinking

[Self-Released; 2011]

Styles: half-serious pop/rock
Others: They Might Be Giants, Weezer, Get Him Eat Him

Graham Smith used to be the coolest person alive. His work as Kleenex Girl Wonder (see also the mutually interchangeable Graham Smith &/KGW, Kleen-Ex Girl Wonder, KEGW, Klccncx Girl Wonder) pierced the 90s DIY jetsam just when some were starting to suspect that the attitude was more in the air than around every corner. His detractors — shruggers, more like — never let up that he was a poor man’s Robert Pollard. To be sure, these are both extraordinarily talented dudes, and when they’re on their game, they can both feel like unstoppable forces of nature. But Smith has that upper register that sounds perpetually like it’s bursting into a clearing; he has that infinite reserve of uplifting hurt. Smith, for a time, desired no abstruse or clever wordplay. He doesn’t deserve the crude identity crisis his music’s seen in the last decade, but until now his music hasn’t suffered outright from it either.

“You Know You Want It, Anyway You Can Get It” is the lone ray of light on Secret Thinking that shows that Smith can still split the apple when he doesn’t second-guess himself. Recorded in a single bedroom-take apart from the other nine tracks, it sounds nothing like GBV and everything like KGW: voice and acoustic guitar fencing each other for different rhythms and sweeps, until it resolutely locks in. “I know I want it,” he hollers, “no matter how much it makes me cry or vomit!” The line, by far the most powerful moment on the album, is a perfect example of the sort of territory Smith can and has covered when he abandons the ‘serious/non-serious’ binary. This freedom led to some scattershot albums and genre-sick groans in the early 2000s, but I say, Hell: at least scattershot can get you somewhere, and for Smith it did as often as not on albums like 2002’s After Mathematics. Scattershot is a heck of a lot more engaging than this dull thud of an album.

Unlike, say, The Mountain Goats — who err, if they err, on the serious side of acerbic wit — Smith has drifted into the sort of saggy lyrical raspberries that demand attention without rewarding it. Out of the corner of his mouth (he plays up his gurgliest drawl), he makes lame-ass wisecracks about Botox, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and, yes, The Matrix. It’s almost as if Smith believes profoundly in tabloid/pop-culture reference points as a way to connect and make meaning but has been hiding under a rock for the last 10 years. And yet he’s proud of his wordplay; it often sounds depressingly like it took work. Even at their most asinine, lyrics take center stage, with the other instruments jerked around alongside them. Take the foam-funk opening of “Does Your Back Hurt?”: “…from stooping so low?/ I can see up your skirt, and the grass it does grow/ Greener on the other side as on your soft white underbelly.” This souring tossup between juvenile, surreal, and cliché is pretty common on Secret Thinking. The result is that any earnest or emotive lyrics have about the impact of the mandatory feel-good ending in (to draw from Smith’s cultural pot) an old Adam Sandler flick.

Words, words, words: can they really ruin an album like that? Well, no, not if the music weren’t such a freaking hammock. For a guy who’s forayed into hip-hop — or even for a guy who’s snapped off his tape player on a whim to play a song’s bridge in a larger room — Smith now seems content with some sonically bland shit, radio-friendly from the first 10 seconds. It’s almost as if he splurged to record in a professional studio (it was actually recorded in a Bed and Breakfast, but bear with me) and as soon as he got there he decided he just wanted to rock out with his buds. To be fair, Smith assuredly hasn’t lost his songwriting talent; he’s just watered it down. If you guzzle the punch, like I sorta had to, the notes will inevitably ping-pong hollowly in your skull. But the sensation will be meaningless when it isn’t downright annoying. One wouldn’t want to be caught singing these songs out of context — a solid backstory is pretty much all Smith has going for him.

At just over half an hour, Secret Thinking is Smith’s shortest album (he used to be a true 79-minute, 25-song, lo-fi opus type) and arguably his most labored-over. It’s also the first flat-out dud of his career — the first KGW album that is difficult to get behind in both concept and execution. In the creepier ways — the “weed will make you dull and boring” (“Neon Redbone”) ways — this might be a culmination of 10 less-than-satisfying years of floundering for him, so I’ll veer from the institutional ageism built into the critical apparatus. But on the other hand, naw: 2009’s Mrs. Equitone was a solid effort, and the drop-off here really is curiously steep. In light of a man who lives, breathes, sleeps, sits, and walks Music, “misstep” is more than just an idiom. This one just happened to take place on a flight of stairs.

Links: Kleenex Girl Wonder - Self-Released

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