Saturday, March 17, 2012

Weezer left many fans seeing red

What a different Weezer we saw in 2008, and how familiar they remained ...

Weezer's third self-titled album, referred by many -- including me -- as their "Red album" because of the dominant color of the cover, follows in the footsteps of "Pinkerton" and "Make Believe" by throwing a handful of gems out into the world, with a lot of tracks that grow in appreciation with more listens.

So, OK, by this point in the career of Weezer, they'd risen to fame ("Blue"), exposed their dark side ("Pinkerton"), gone on hiatus and returned as pop perfection ("Green"), developed their guitar hero chops ("Maladroit") and then demonstrated their ability to meld sounds of the Eighties, Nineties and Aughts to an emotional gumbo ("Make Believe"). They'd done a lot.

With "Red," Weezer builds upon "Make Believe" and its musical flexibility while adding the confidence and energy of "Green" and the dynamism of "Pinkerton." Sounds great, right? Well, for the most part, "Red" most certainly is. Sometimes the combination of those elements creates for a weak bit here and there, but the quality of the material is quite impressive throughout.

The band members take turns in the spotlight, and we get to hear Brian Bell, Scott Shriner and Pat Wilson take turns on the lead vocals ... it's not just Rivers Cuomo's show. Styles vary greatly, but each song has that unmistakable "Weezer" quality. It takes several listens to really appreciate ... but then it's love, all over again. And that's some time well spent, my friends.

"Red" is kind of thematic, in a way. If I wanted to get really convoluted and make things up, I could say it charts growth from teenage macho self confidence and grows into more thoughtful adulthood. But really, I think it just shows Rivers' (and the groups') evolving outlook on life and how they did/do things. So I'm not going to paint a picture of this as a concept album. It's just a collection of songs done by some guys who have grown a lot since 1995, 1997, 2001, etc.

The album starts off kicking right away, letting you know that the "dejected loser hero" that Rivers employs in some of his best work isn't going to be making a lot of appearances. Instead, we've got a comfortable rebel, a misfit who does what he wants (listen to the album, many of the Rivers songs are full of a confidence that borders on cocky). What's the lead-off song? "Troublemaker."

The lyrics sometimes get taken to task for the simplistic nature, but considering the tone and meaning of the song ... that may just be the point. Writing things others want, or with a complexity you might just expect from Rivers, would be one of the things he'd aim that "rebel" persona at. Very catchy. The "biatch/kiads" lyric really grew on me.

"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" is probably the critic/fan highlight or lowlight of the album, depending on your tastes. It starts off with some crowd noise, with a piano playing, then goes into a heavy beat with Rivers rapping (!!!) a couple bars before they go into some grunge, which segues into a kind of "military marching band and chorus" vibe, which itself flows into a Seventies/Eighties-vein falsetto swoop ... which THEN goes into a very "Pinkertonish" verse, then there's a bit of synthesizer to add yet another level of complexity (the synth part kind of reminds me of The Rentals). Whew. A monster of a song. Truly monumental. And hey, again, there's the courageous Rivers with some gravitas. We're not seeing the guy who always misses out on getting the girl. THIS guy is getting some!

(One thing I've grown to recognize and appreciate in the evolution of Weezer is their sense of humor and their lack of caring about convention. They've had some truly awesome videos, like "Buddy Holly" and "Keep Fishin'." But they didn't do squat for a video for "Greatest Man" ... and they really, really, really make that clear, as demonstrated above. That nonchalance is almost punk in attitude. Almost.)

"Pork and Beans" is catchy, it's funny, it's got the "nerdy" lyrics that so many of us appreciate, and it has the magnificent YouTube video. Kind of a different sound at first, but when they hit the chorus, it's pure Weezer. Totally catchy, you find yourself singing along (and I like the humming throughout it), a great choice for the first single. And this guy doesn't care what people think ... he does what he wants. Confidence!

"Heart Songs" is an enjoyable if corny "ballad" that Rivers writes about the songs/artists that meant a lot to him, that he grew up with (or learned from). The nod to Nirvana's "Nevermind," or discussing how Weezer's own Blue Album in turn becomes the heart songs for fans is really a cool way to sum it all up and bring things full circle. Sentimental? Sure. Kind of slow? Yeah. But it's killer when you take it for what it's worth. Such an exposure of musical enjoyment, some choices that are sure to invite some scorn. Still, Cuomo is not afraid to throw it out there.

"Everybody Get Dangerous" is kind of the lecture song of the album, as it reflects on reckless youth ... and is almost a dorky (and thus fun) warning song. It's got a message ... and Rivers is right, what will we tell our kids when they want to play with some ninja swords? (How many pop songs even mention ninja swords?) Kind of neat to learn that Rivers was just as dumb of a kid as so many of us are/were, doing the pranks and stunts that some people don't live through. And that's his message, that dangerous stuff isn't always lived through. This isn't a bashful Rivers who backs off or talks about the friends of his who died and he's forlorn about it. He's proactive. He's saying, "Hey, everyone does this crap, it's dumb, there must be some kind of fate because some of us make it." Kind of wearing his memories and beliefs on his sleeve.

"Dreamin'" may be my favorite song on the album on any given day. Really reminds me of their debut album ("Blue") in some ways. It's very "dense" instrumentally, it has some feedback on the guitars, the sound just really grabs your attention and keeps it. For some reason, it reminds me of "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here," even though the songs are very different. The "reverie" section of "Dreamin'," where the song slows down and Brian Bell makes his vocal debut ... gorgeous. And the harmonies after that, with Rivers and Brian doing counterpoint vocals, just makes a truly stunning song. The end kind of goes totally abstract from the rest of the song, with Rivers exhorting the listener to take back the love. I can dig it. :)

"Thought I Knew" gives us Brian Bell's contribution. Pretty catchy, a good groove, and it suits Brian's vocals pretty well. Following such a great tune as "Dreamin'" is hard to do, and I give the band props by letting another songwriter/singer give it a shot. After Bell's vocal contribution to "Dreamin'," they take the full plunge on a whole song. It's like "okay, this was the cliff ... and now we'll take the fans over it, give them a voice they've never gotten on a full song before." Not the greatest piece of poetry, but a good song nonetheless. Bell is an earthier songwriter, more traditional, and he adds to the texture of the album.

"Cold Dark World" gives us Scott Shriner's vocal debut (though the lyrics were penned by Rivers Cuomo, and a version with Cuomo's vocals was released later as an iTunes bonus track on "Raditude"). Kind of dirgy, a constant chug to the song, but some great energy build up. It's not a bad song at all, but it doesn't do a lot to pace the album. It's probably my least favorite song on the CD (I kind of wish the deluxe edition's bonus track of "King" was used here, instead, if we want to preserve Scott's moment ... "King" is a marvelous song, totally eclipsing "Cold Dark World").

"Automatic" gives us Pat Wilson on vocals, with his turn at writing a song. Though he'd co-written with Rivers on earlier songs, this is Pat stepping out. He does a good job singing it, and the song is a good mid-tempo rocker. Kind of reminds me of some of the "harder edge" Barenaked Ladies songs (yes, I DID just say harder edge and Barenaked Ladies in the same sentence!), and not in a "lighthearted, jokey content" kind of way. Just that overall sound. And not only did Wilson sing it, he wrote it. He'd gotten co-writing credits before (on "Blue" he has three: "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here," "Surf Wax America" and "My Name is Jonas," and he'd helped Cuomo with "Lemonade" and "Lullaby for Wayne"). And if that's not enough, he also played guitar on the track (Cuomo handling the drums).

"The Angel and the One" is a gorgeous song, very tender, very spiritual. Rivers' singing is so earnest and pleading. Apparently it's a band favorite, and with just cause. It's life affirming and welcoming, and channels a bit of their old sound along the way. The song's "peace shalom" tag kind of gives listeners a glimpse at Rivers' beliefs, but without thrusting it on the listeners, and doing it in a way that "blesses" the listeners. We're hearing someone who is at peace with himself, in touch with his emotional center and sharing himself with the audience. This isn't a lament, like "Butterfly." This isn't a somber tale, like "December." This is someone who has found himself and knows what he wants. It's a love song, but not one sung in vain. There's no loser here, not anymore.

This album very much reminds me of the immediacy of "Green," the studio complexity of "Blue," the almost nonchalant narcissism of "Pinkerton," the hooks of "Maladroit" and the atmosphere of "Make Believe." The strengths of those albums are all here. And the weaknesses aren't absent ... but they're so minor. This was a tour de force. Everything you enjoyed in the first 5 albums is delivered in this sixth one. Maybe those ingredients aren't as prevalent on a song-by-song basis, as some listeners clearly wanted. There are no "Say It Ain't So" anthems here, per se. But Weezer already did "Blue." Already did "Pinkerton." And so forth, and so on. Why do it all again? You've got the records. This is Weezer's growth.

Weezer's "Red" is a delight for the musical taste buds. I love "Make Believe" (which seems to put me in a minority for their fan base), but this album is a significant departure from the last album. It's as different from "Make Believe" as "Pinkerton" was from "Blue." And boy, it's so good to hear.

Basically, I consider "Red" to be ... well, like The Beatles' "White Album." Different styles, growing in different directions, using different sounds, giving each member a voice (and songwriting credit). I'm not comparing the quality, the songwriting, the impact, etc. But as far as their situations go, I think the comparison works.

Need more variety to allow the comparison to "The White Album" to really land properly? No problem.

The bonus tracks on the deluxe edition are amazing. From the off-kilter "Miss Sweeney" to the ethereal "The Spider" and the interesting "Pig" and the rocking "King," the bonus tracks are completely solid.

I love the cinematic style of "Miss Sweeney," the nonconfessional love song from a boss to his assistant (unexpressed love and longing, with a twist). The story and presentation are humorous, but the situation is all-too-understandable, as we've all had that love that we feared to express and bottled up.

"Pig" is a track that tells a life story ... from the view point of a pig. And it starts off in a rather pleasant, almost children's song style. The end takes on the very realistic end, as the narrator is lead off to be butchered. In terms of songwriting, it's a fun piece with some great lyrics. That it can make itself both so human and so "pig" at the same time is a great stroke.

"King" is such a bad-ass song. It's so cool and confident, and features a strong vocal by Shriner. Rivers apparently was going to discard the track, but Shriner urged its inclusion on the album. Rivers agreed to release it as a bonus track, and gave it to Shriner to sing. Check out the bar vibe of the track. It would have been a strong inclusion to the standard album.

"The Spider" is adventurous and out there, like a spaced-out prog-rock number with some strong harmonies. It may meander a bit, and it has that "all living creatures are important" angle to it, but it really adds a nice bit of chill to the whole package, and it resonates in those late night/early morning listens. It may be one of the least Weezer sounding songs they've released, but it shows their musical dexterity.

Is this album for everyone? Probably not. But don't let your outlook on the album be swayed by people who lament that this has veered from the old territory, and that Weezer has forgotten their "true fans," or that the group was so desperate for commercial success that they threw a lot of different stuff at their audience with the hopes that something would stick. A lot of reviewers / critics / "fans" went that route.

What a load of crap.

Some folks hate the white-boy rap of "Greatest Man." OK, fair enough. Some folks found "Heart Songs" to be lame pap. No problem, different strokes for different folks. A lot of people hated that Rivers didn't do all the lead vocals ... which he'd done on all the Weezer songs/albums to this point (excepting the song "I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams" with Rachel Haden, part of the aborted "Songs from The Black Hole" rock opera which was resurrected as a "Pinkerton" era B-side). I guess we all have our preference for lead vocalists, so I can understand that. And many lamented that Weezer was going more pop and less rock (because pop is awful, lightweight junk ... right? Hmm, maybe not. I've addressed my thoughts on pop in one of my earliest blog entries).

Rather than just say, "I don't like the album for these reasons," some critics and "fans" dismissed Weezer as being over, out of it, disconnected, too old, out of touch with their "fans" or too desperate to be cool or have hits or sell a lot of records. In essence, these sages became omniscient narrators ... knowing everything and evaluating everything in their perfect wisdom. That's the worst kind of critic, in my humble opinion.

You can be fans of albums, folks, just as you can be haters. But why expect Weezer (or any artist/group) to do the same old songs, the same old riffs, with the same old lyrics? We have all the old albums. Those songs you loved are there. These are the new ones. If sharks stop swimming, they die. If animals in the wild stop moving, they become easy prey for predators. If artists stop pushing themselves to try new things, they become stagnant parodies of themselves (case in point: "Chinese Democracy").

Ripping on a group for trying new sounds and styles is pretty lame, just because you liked earlier albums better and you think artists should stick to the same old stuff.

It's fair to criticize an album, to not like it, or to wish for old sounds. Seriously, go nuts and frame your arguments in that fashion. It's perfectly valid to say, "Man, I loved Rivers when he was writing introspective and emotional songs like 'The Good Life,' but I just can't relate to 'Pork and Beans.' What happened to the angst?" And it's cool to say, "I don't like rap, and I really don't like white-boy rap, and I really really don't like rich white-boy rap." And it's totally fine to say, "OK, well, I just didn't like this album. There weren't any songs that spoke to me or meant anything to me on a personal level. I hope they do better next time."

But to deny Weezer's growth, to wholly dismiss new stuff in favor of old stuff, to demand more of the same when you already have the sounds you want from them just seems ... silly. The Beatles refused to stop growing after the success of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and we ended up getting "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Hey Jude" and "Here Comes the Sun." The Beach Boys didn't rewrite "409" a hundred times, they came up with "Help Me Rhonda," "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Good Vibrations."

Cuomo and company can churn out the sounds and beats all day long, and the amount of officially unreleased material they have created is staggering. Sure, they COULD give you "Hash Pipe version 10" ... but would you really want it? It is natural for the group to continue to follow their collective muses and express themselves, even when that results in the occasional clunker songs or tepid albums (personally, I'm not a big fan of several tracks on "Hurley," which followed "Raditude," which followed "Red"). I respect that Weezer is appreciating its past while pumping out material with an eye on the future.

And Red paints quite a colorful future, indeed.

Whew. Went on a rant there! That'll do for scolding, right? Heh. Sorry about that!

The music aside, I also have some fond memories of this era because I saw Weezer tour "Red." Two good friends of mine (one of whom would become my wife, and the other hadn't seen a concert in decades) went to a show with me during this tour.

Talk about a top-notch show. Cuomo was so animated and having fun, jumping on trampolines and kicking soccer balls around. The band was tight, and they performed some of the challenging material live ("Greatest Man" and "Dreamin'" were featured). Fan favorites like "El Scorcho," "My Name is Jonas" and "Keep Fishin'" also were present, for a heck of a good time. The audience sang along, and local musicians were invited up on stage to play along during a Hootenanny segment. Of the three Weezer concerts I've attended to date, the "Red" show was the very best. It was a hell of a great night!

"Red" is a good album, a strong album. It has its weaknesses, sure, and it's startlingly different at places. If you were placed in cryogenic suspension in 1997 and got thawed out in 2007, going from "Tired of Sex" to "Heart Songs" would probably give you a hell of a jolt. But Weezer music has a certain quality to it that always puts a stamp of Weezishness on each track ... so the sounds may change, but there's that familiar intangible essence that makes Weezer "Weezer."

I, for one, appreciate that a lot. And I appreciate Weezer growing, trying things, succeeded and failing ... and giving fans more material with every new album (even if I don't particularly like some of the songs).

I hope you dig it all, too.

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