Musicology: Weezer

Scott Shriner, Rivers Cuomo, Patrick Wilson and Brian Bell are Weezer.
Scott Shriner, Rivers Cuomo, Patrick Wilson and Brian Bell are Weezer.

THE imminent arrival of the Big Day Out has got some music fans excited, but for others the hottest show in town was Weezer's first Australian in 16 years.

Weezer began their 20-year career as part of the alt-rock boom and through a string of excellent albums, quirky clips and a generous regard for their fans, they have turned their nerdish power-pop into over 10 million album sales worldwide.

In honour of their return Down Under, here's a look at their first five albums.

Weezer (1994)

EVERY song on Weezer's self-titled debut (aka The Blue Album) is a winner. It sounds very 1994, resounding with distorted power chords, quiet-loud dynamics and a decidely alternative outlook - few other popular albums wear their geekishness so defiantly. Frontman Rivers Cuomo sings of looking like Buddy Holly, getting confronted by violent "homies dissing his girl", wearing sweaters, playing guitar and Dungeons & Dragons in his garage, and going surfing to get away from people. His disarming lyrics are part of the album's charm, as is his ability to write a tune that has a certain familiarity to it yet feels undoubtedly fresh at the same time. Every track is filled with classic-sounding power-pop progressions, hooky melodies and solid rock rhythms, from the stunning opener My Name Is Jonas through to the epic closer Only In Dreams (in fact ...Jonas must sit alongside Smells Like Teen Spirit as one of the best opening tracks of the '90s). The singalong vocal lines are plentiful and augmented by cheerful harmonies that keep it on the poppy side of alt-rock, as does the clean production by producer Ric Ocasek of The Cars.

The highlights are too numerous to mention but it was the first two singles and their Spike Jonze-directed film clips - Undone (The Sweater Song) and Buddy Holly - that grabbed attention, helping propel the album to #16 in the US and #23 in the UK. The album didn't chart in Australia but Undone reached #40 in Triple J's Hottest 100 of 1994. It's legacy has grown over the years. Rolling Stone put it at #297 in their 500 Greatest Albums list, Pitchfork included it in its Best Albums Of The '90s list at #26, and Blender included it in their top 500 albums list. The Blue Album remains Weezer's biggest selling album and stands as one of the finest debuts of all time.

Great song, great clip - here's Buddy Holly:

And because I can, here's Undone as well. This was about take 15 or 20 of this video:

Pinkerton (1996)

THE big question among Weezer fans is which is better; the brighter and poppier Blue Album or its darker and weirder follow-up Pinkerton? Musicology leans toward the latter, which has taken a strange trajectory to achieve belated acclaim. Originally, the band's second album was going to be a space-rock concept record about three guys, two girls and a robot who head off on a mission into outer space. Titled Songs From The Black Hole, full demo versions of the record can be found around the 'net, although the whole concept album remains unreleased. Cuomo eventually ditched that idea, perhaps sensing career suicide, but kept some of the tracks for Pinkerton. Those songs make up the blistering opening cuts - Tired Of Sex, Getchoo, No Other One and Why Bother? - with some of the other Pinkerton material inspired by a Japanese fan who wrote him a letter (Across The Sea), his inability to talk to a "half-Japanese girl" at college (El Scorcho), and Puccini's Japan-set opera Madame Butterfly (Butterfly) (are you seeing a theme here?).

The results are weird and wonderful, but the fans and critics didn't think so at first. A Rolling Stone reader's poll voted it the worst album of '96 and it sold poorly at first, failing to reach a million copies in the US (The Blue Album sold three million-plus). But the darker and more caustic tone has grown on critics and fans alike over the years. The highlights are awesome - stadium rock stomper Getchoo, wonderfully off-kilter single El Scorcho, and tearful acoustic closer Butterfly are all winners, as are single The Good Life, audacious and raucous opener Tired Of Sex and the "fell in love with a lesbian" ode Pink Triangle, which features the classic unrequited line "we were good as married in my mind, but married in my mind's no good". Pinkerton went top 20 in the US, top 40 in Australia and top 50 in the UK, but quickly dropped out of the charts. El Scorcho was the only mildly successful single - in Australia it went to #70 on the ARIA charts but was #9 in Triple J's Hottest 100 of '96.

Showing my age here, but this is the sound of high school for me:

Weezer (2001)

THE perceived failure of Pinkerton led to creative differences in the band, which led to a five-year hiatus, during which Cuomo became so depressed he blacked out the windows of his home and became a hermit. But a brewing fanbase spurred on by the rise of the internet helped re-ignite Weezer's fires and the band returned with their second self-titled album (known as The Green Album). It seems like an obvious attempt to recapture the success of their debut - another self-titled album, a similar cover, reuniting with producer Ric Ocasek, and returning to a more polished power-pop sound.

Clocking in at just 28 minutes and 48 seconds, it's short, sharp and direct... and the approach pays off. The Green Album was their first top five album in the US and nearly doubled the worldwide sales of Pinkerton. This was thanks to the popular single Island In The Sun (which is perhaps their best known song) and the contentious Hash Pipe (which was censored due to its drug reference). Both songs certainly stand-out from the formula of the rest of the album. Tracks such as the mid-tempo chug of Simple Pages, the super-poppy Photograph and the anthemic rocker Glorious Day are highlights and fine examples of what Weezer do best. But Island In The Sun, with its summery dumbed-down calypso, and the falsetto pop-metal of Hash Pipe showed that even though they were going back to basics, their best moments were when they stretched out.

Weezer + sumos=Hash Pipe:

Maladroit (2002)

THE signpost of this album seems to have been Hash Pipe, with its exciting blend of pop convention and heavy riffs. This is Weezer's "metal" album - it's not exactly Reign In Blood, but it's as close as they're likely to get. The ascending grind of American Gigolo, the Kiss-like Dope Nose, the thrashy verses of Fall Together, and the old-school riffage and noodling of Take Control show off a new side of their influences, but without forsaking the harmonies, hooks and pop progressions. Somehow it works, making this an under-rated gem. Maladroit's best song - the bouncey rocker Keep Fishin' - is classic Weezer, but as with The Blue Album and Pinkerton, there's not a dud on here. The sludgey angst of Slob, the surprise packet of Burndt Jamb and the gorgeous tragedy of Death And Destruction are also highlights.

The album almost turned out very differently, with the band asking their fans to give them feedback on the songs during the recording, which the band later said was unhelpful. The disappointing thing about Maladroit is its sales. The album was well received by critics and fans, but of the five albums reviewed in this column, Maladroit is the worst-selling. Strangely, it's also their best charting album in Australia, debuting at #11. Magnet Magazine did an article on the five most over-rated and under-rated Weezer songs and placed "all of Maladroit" at #1 on the under-rated list. Musicology couldn't agree more. presciently noted that Maladroit was Weezer at their peak, which unfortunately and inadvertantly pointed to the decline that followed.

Weezer meets The Muppets. One of my all time favourite clips:

Make Believe (2005)

MUSIC writer Chuck Klosterman noted in his novel Eating The Dinosaur that "people are generally disappointed by Weezer albums... it's become the band's defining ethos". For Musicology, Make Believe is the album where the disappointment kicks in. It's not entirely bad, but it does feature some truly dire moments. The first is the opening track and lead single Beverly Hills, in which Cuomo dreams of living large as a celebrity in Los Angeles. Nothing wrong with the sentiment, even if it does seem at odds with Cuomo's seeming disdain for the limelight (as evidenced with the uneasy fan-confrontation track Freak Me Out). What's unappealing about the song is that its delivered in such an unenjoyably sarcastic way, from its neanderthal riff to its valley girl interjections. While the idea of bands "selling out" is mostly an ignorant and stupid cliche, Beverly Hills actually sounds like you imagine the cliched idea would sound - that if a label backed a truckload of money up to Cuomo's house and said "write something facile and hip that kids will love but that ultimately sounds soulless and dumb", the end result would be Beverly Hills. Almost worse is We Are All On Drugs, which comes off with a similar level of unlikeable sarcasm that doesn't become Weezer. In a rare case of censorship improving a song, MTV asked them to change the lyric to We Are All In Love, which actually sounds better. Sarcasm probably wasn't Cuomo's aim, but that's how those songs sound. (NOTE: Since originally writing this 12 months ago, I have since warmed to Beverly Hills, purely as a piece of dumb pop and after seeing them play it live, although I think my initial review still stands when I try to look at objectively... I'm conflicted.)

When Cuomo does wear his heart on his sleeve and the song's delivery matches the honesty, thing work better, such as on Freak Me Out and Perfect Situation. Make Believe earnt Weezer its first Grammy nomination, gave them their first #1 record (in Canada), yielded their first top 10 single in the UK and US (Beverly Hills) and is the last of their albums to date to top a million sales worldwide. That Maladroit sold so badly and yet Make Believe did so well is baffling.

They can't all be zingers:


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