2008 / Music

Review: Weezer’s ‘Red Album’ Shows Fading Brilliance

Alt-Rock Group Releases Eighth Disc

Balancing contradictions are an intrinsic part of Weezer leader Rivers Cuomo’s musical world view.

Photo: DGC Records/Interscope Records

Photo: DGC Records/Interscope Records

Since forming the Southern California-based, alternative-rock group in the early ’90s, Cuomo has pushed his band to wrap its punk and art-rock influences and aspirations in old-fashioned, all-American cheesy pop-metal. Taking a page from the Stooges, Weezer’s songs are often so dumb they’re smart. (Producer and infamous post-punk curmudgeon Steve Albini once likened one of Weezer’s best singles ever — the ’70s rock, shark-circling menace of “Hash Pipe” — to a world-class chef lovingly preparing a plate of French fries.)

Everything on Weezer’s new, self-titled album (unofficially known as “The Red Album”) is just as expertly rendered and executed as the rest of the band’s catalog, but the latest songs aren’t quite the instant ear candy you’d expect from Cuomo and associates. While the record’s title and presentation clearly links back to the group’s best discs — labeled “The Blue Album” and “The Green Album” — there’s a sense that now the contradictions have been replaced by confusion, Weezer’s eclecticism has been overwhelmed by schizophrenia. Perhaps most critical of all, Cuomo’s knack for dreaming up catchy rawk hooks and sublime vocal melodies seems to be deserting him.

If there’s a responsible party for the band and this album, it’s Cuomo. He has served as the final arbiter who guides Weezer’s creative direction and has had to struggle to find the balance between his underground-music impulses and his and the band’s aspirations for mainstream stardom. If the group ever strays too far in either direction — and they did with albums like “Pinkerton” and “Maladroit” — they’ve alienated a part of their audience. If Weezer can be categorized as power-pop, the duality of heavy guitars and

The inconsistencies inherent in Weezer’s music can be traced to mindset of the man himself. He’s a Harvard-educated, pop-music brainiac, the original rock geek. He’s one who has studied music theory and according to published reports, filled notebooks dissecting Kurt Cobain and others’ compositional methods. His approach to songwriting takes jams that sound like they intuitively roar out of the garage practice space and deconstruct them with the detailed analysis of a Master’s degree dissertation. And yet when it all comes down to it, the finished product demonstrates that he just wants to play guitar like Kiss’ Ace Frehley.

The first track on “The Red Album” clumsily touts Cuomo’s problematic approach to music-making. “Troublemaker” tries to present Cuomo as the songwriting savant that he dreams of and the ultimate rock-star badass instead of the record-label pet project that he often proves to be. (Today, industry execs are as ravenous for a pop songwriter who wants to cloak his singles with indie-rock-cred as Sam Phillips wanted Elvis to be an ambassador for rock’n’roll.) Musically, “Troublemaker” has all the ingredients for a radio hit. There’s a repeating, percussive guitar chord hook and a pep-rally-cheer of a chorus, but pulled together, it’s all a bunch of segments lacking a unified melody. Cuomo delivers some clever lines and even throws out some gangsta slang, which is again amusing, but it doesn’t compensate for an overall dud.

Along the same lines, first single “Pork and Beans” has a few lyrical zingers that don’t much make up for the music’s cheap pyrotechnics. Cuomo is again angst-ing against his label overlords and their desire for commercial material from the band. Of course, Cuomo obliges as best he can, but complains in every verse along the way. His wittiness about being an aging rock star and his ironic shout-out to ace hip-hop producer Timbaland make the track a sassy listen, but the pulverizing guitar rumble during the chorus don’t satisfy. By begrudgingly attempting to please both his masters and his contrary nature, Cuomo ultimately pleases no one.

Still another mash of good and bad is the perfectly corny “Heart Songs.” The song is an acoustic-guitar-based, maudlin ballad. Strings cue us to Cuomo’s whimsical reminiscences of no, not the girl of his dreams, but Quiet Riot and Debbie Gibson. This is cut is Cuomo’s embarrassing love letter to the artists and music of his childhood, and although it’s delivered in a “We Didn’t Start The Fire” pastiche of rock stars name dropping and song titles, the tender vocals and Cuomo’s hair-metal-era arrangement make it at least coherent in its sugary sweetness.

On other songs, a careful listen can also reveal traces of Cuomo’s school-boy tendencies to furiously study other musical forms. Sometimes the results of these experiments are surprisingly intriguing, but other times they’ll make you search for what’s the next track. On “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn),” he tries to blend rap-vocal cadences, metal riffs, early David Bowie acoustic-guitar warbling and a wicked falsetto into a mini-opera of muddled half-ideas. “Everybody Get Dangerous” is direct in its mission of landing on moder-rock programming lists. The guitar riffs and Cuomo are finally working together instead of just bumping up against each other. In a classic-rock nod, the song’s breakdown quotes Mick Jagger’s yelps and the polyrhythmic tribal vibe of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil.”) Even better is the multi-layered “The Cold Dark World,” on which Cuomo combines Peter Frampton’s talking guitar effect with a vocal melody eerie familiar to fans of Los Lobos’ “Kiko” album. Cuomo’s non-discriminating musical cues might be getting the better of him versus his own creations, but listeners can’t argue with his taste.

Most indicative of the state of the band and Cuomo’s creative powers lies in the fact that drummer Patrick Wilson and guitarist Brian Bell each have their own showpiece during the record’s second half. Both have operated as just Cuomo’s sidemen through most of the group’s existence and these appearances in the spotlight initially comes across like when John Fogerty let the other guys feebly cut songs for the last Credence Clearwater Revival record. These results aren’t anywhere near as odious, but listeners should definitely feel oft put. The vibe isn’t all that dissimilar as when Doug Yule began to take over the Velvet Underground from Lou Reed. (This is something of an irony as Bell and Wilson impersonated members of the Velvets in the Sienna Miller-headlining “Factory Girl.”)

In both cases, the songs are actually among the album’s best. Bell’s “Thought I Knew” is a jangle-rocker, peppy in its snappy production, Bell’s snotty, vocal attitude and the Matthew Sweet-style sizzling guitar lines. Wilson’s “Automatic” begins as an understated star vehicle featuring a so-son singer. Of course, the drum sound is way up front in the mix, but finally, we have a little energy coming from this part of the ensemble. When the distorted guitars finally enter the fray as the chorus kicks in, Weezer finally has the most effective musical hook of the entire record. “The Red Album” so often fails to match Weezer’s previous balance of high art and commercialism that it comes as a bit of a surprise when Wilson guides the song’s thunder-rock to an art-rock-influenced conclusion of wordless vocalizing and psychedelic phasing effects. Perhaps the students are finally learning from the teacher.

When the record nears its end, however, the master has one final trick up his sleeve. “The Angel and The One” is a slow dirge on which Cuomo plucks and strums electric guitar notes that perfectly build up to an emo crescendo. His singing starts as a dejected whisper before developing into a note-perfect wail of woe. It’s the album’s unrivaled climax and is the only time listeners can hear Cuomo’s song-crafting skills, his performance strengths and the track’s core emotional motivations seem in confluence.

Reaching that sense of harmony is something that has so often proved problematic for Weezer throughout their history. Album by album, the group has always relied on Cuomo to supply and then balance both ends of the power-pop equation. Unfortunately, his intellectual, analytically style hasn’t immunized him from outthinking pitfalls that trip the most ingenuous songwriters. “The Red Album” showcases fragments of Cuomo’s formidable gifts, as well as the musical growth of his bandmates, but is still to erratic and inconsistent when placed next to Weezer’s previous eponymous records.

“The Red Album” instead suggests Weezer’s once-vibrant brilliance at rescuing dumb, ’70s-’80s metal is fading. It sadly contradicts what we’ve come to expect from them.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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