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Butterfly

For my money, “Buttefly” might very well be the best thing Rivers Cuomo’s ever done. I usually vacillate between this one and “Only in Dreams” as Weezer’s definitive moment (and sometimes the defiantly great Red era outtake “Pig,” even), and at 8 minutes, “Dreams” has a bit of an inherent advantage — it is conspicuously epic, resoundingly conclusive, and masterfully beautiful. But “Butterfly” lacks only the first of those three descriptors, and might actually be better for it. As it sheds the the coarse, distorted cocoon of Pinkerton‘s first 9 tracks to make its gentle skyward escape, “Butterfly” is a song that achieves everything its shouted, amplified, cathartically immature predecessors do with just one guy playing one guitar and singing one voice. At a bit under 3 minutes in length, “Butterfly” is approximately as long as the overwhelming finale of “Dreams,” and — just like “Dreams” — it can send waves of chills through my body the whole way through, if I’m in the mood to let it.

“Butterfly” is the perfect quiet-after-the-storm for one of the most raucous albums in rock history, the inversely spare denouement to the album’s aesthetic and literal centerpiece, “Across the Sea.” It’s inevitably disappointing to imagine Pinkerton ending in any other way, and it’s interesting to think that for a time Cuomo did (with the grand, though much lesser, “Longtime Sunshine“) — though I doubt he could’ve called the record Pinkerton if he did. Though scholars are still searching for evidence of the Puccini-quoted melodies that Cuomo has claimed are scattered throughout his own song suite, “Butterfly” is the one place where Madama Butterfly‘s presence is most clearly felt. Butterfly, Puccini’s 1904 opera, ends with naval lieutenant Pinkerton forever leaving behind his secret love in Japan, Cio-Cio San, as he makes his final return to his American life and family. Pinkerton ends with our own Pinkerton (Cuomo himself, on page and in life) making the same reluctant betrayal of the love he’s finally found after so much pained searching (the miserable morning-after regret that follows a starlit night of love and confusion called “Falling For You“). In a lot of ways, it’s a progression from the adolescent angst that makes all previous Weezer songs so vital: “Across the Sea” is fantasizing about a girl too young to have without hurting, “Only in Dreams” is a prom night too perfect to exist, “In the Garage” is being too lonely to even find someone with whom to play Dungeons & Dragons. “Butterfly” cuts down on the self-pity but none of the self-loathing, lucidly aware that the pain he is about to inflict on her and himself is entirely his own doing; it is painfully honest and confessional, so much so that recording engineer David Fridmann felt compelled to ask Cuomo if he really wanted to say it on record. But even then, it’s not one bit more mature than those other songs — you can tell as much in the second verse, when he sings pettily, “If I’m a dog then you’re a bitch,” but even more plainly so in those gorgeously awful last three lines, when it is quietly revealed that Cuomo is singing this song to himself, not to the poor girl. “I did what my body told me to / I didn’t mean to do you harm” isn’t an insincere apology, it’s not an apology — the bastard is just rationalizing his mistake for his own conscience’s sake. The real apology comes later, at the very end, and that’s one for not having the guts to apologize. You can tell he means that one.

This song has been performed a number of ways by Cuomo and company, and improbably enough, they’re all brilliant. In the early ’00s, Weezer had a remarkable knack for misinterpreting their own classics (the godawful extended intro for “Buddy Holly” was just the most common; the worst was probably newbie Scott Shriner’s effects-pedal smothering and improvisational dance-upon-corpsing of “Only in Dreams” and its bass spine). But somehow, the full-band jam take on “Butterfly” actually came off: I’ve heard many slight variations across a number of bootlegs, and some worked better than others, but they all worked, and that’s something of a great achievement, considering their common features include rather active drumming, free-range bass roaming (ably introduced by Mikey Welsh, not Shriner, interestingly enough), echoic electric guitars, and twice as many “I’m sorrys” as the recorded version. Probably the best take is the one that wound up officially released on the b-side of “Beverly Hills” in 2005. This strange pairing of songs continued with the placement of “Butterfly” in what was otherwise probably the Raditude era’s pivotal nadir, the 2009 AOL sessions, this gorgeously simple and understated epic following the likes of Chamillionaire ruining the one redeeming moment of “Can’t Stop Partying,” and Kenny fucking G flute-shitting all over a song about banging teenage girls in the Palermo’s men’s room. Here “Butterfly” had harp instead of guitar, and Cuomo stood in place and sang instead of shouting around like a rhesus ape, and it was lovely.

My absolute favorite performance, though, was probably the one that took place this past weekend in New York City. The band was just finishing up the local leg of its Memories tour, in which they play a greatest hits setlist and then one of their first two albums on succesive evenings. Blue was fantastic but Pinkerton was uniformly superior (just like the records), and after years of air-guitaring and -drumming and bad-singing along with friends in the car, finally getting to shout and jump and do it all with thousands of perfect strangers felt like something of a lifetime accomplishment. But it was “Butterfly” (with that minimal tom-tom beat played by Karl Koch, just like on the record) that gave us the chance to calm down and really soak it all in — an opportunity to think not what these songs have meant for us, but what they’ve meant for Cuomo. Back in the late ’90s, when it seemed the man had all but disappeared, fans interpreted the last three lines of “Butterfly” as a goodbye to music. Now, in the late ’00s, it could just as tenably be read as an apology from Cuomo, having returned but not once having really seemed like himself, for the music he has made since. But all those several thousands of us could now stand in place and sing and really try to hit all the notes, not for ourselves as we did loud and free on “The Good Life” and “El Scorcho,” but for Cuomo. As he finished amidst great applause, warmth in his eyes and a small smile as he stood holding his acoustic high in triumph before a sea of hand-symbols representing the band he’s fronted mostly just in name for so long, you could really sense that he gets it, he got it in ’96, and he never honestly forgot it. Cuomo’s just always wanted to be loved, and when Pinkerton didn’t go over so well he simply tried to find what he needed from a different audience; meanwhile, we who love Pinkerton and have wanted to love him for it have grown as an audience, and for a night we could each give each other exactly what had been missing from this record’s history for so long. I waited nearly a decade for that one moment, and I’m not sorry.

Blowin’ My Stack

Tonight, on Teenage Victory Songs, we will be going over some of the reasons why “Blowin’ My Stack” is a modern Weezer classic. You are invited to download it and listen first, or read along as you go.

1. Starting a song about blowing out your amp with a riff played through…well, a blown-out amp. Nice little way to get a song started, and it combines with the acoustic guitar to make for a really nice texture during the verses.
2. “Woe is me” — with a sense of humor, for once! Can’t remember the last time a Weezer song charmed me so well with an opening line.
3. The just-below-a-shout vocal harmonies: “A mighty long time!” “But you don’t know why!” Reminds me of the early ’90s classic “Chess.” And, speaking of which…
4. This song reminds me of “Chess” in a lot of ways, actually. There’s the lyrics about mundane day-to-day life, and the struggle to transcend it (in “Chess,” Cuomo offers the second person “you” a paint brush; here, he leads by example in turning up the volume on his amp). There’s a similarity I hear in the confidently strummed acoustic, too.
5. The extended verses. Too often nowadays Rivers is content to simply bide his time during the verse before the big chorus ear candy (“Tripping Down the Freeway,” “Pork and Beans”), but here he really gets in the groove, opening up some breathing room for himself to actually say something, and the band to actually do something interesting (I like the little syncopated fills Pat Wilson adds).
6. Speaking of big chorus ear candy: holy shit! The layered guitars and cathartic shouts really have an air of pop euphoria to them. It sounds happy, it is happy, it is infectiously so. It makes me feel good.
7. Second verse: “You’re so scared! (So scared!) / So scared! (So scared!) / …And I’m scared too!” Adorable (relatable!) sentiment, amplified in effect by a great melody and a harmony to match. Can’t help but smile.
8. When was the last time you heard a Cuomo song that actually added something noticeable to the chorus? The little background vocal addition in the second chorus is such a great touch.
9. First half of the solo is some fire. Cuomo’s shredding in a way I done never heard him shred before (is this the kind of ass-kicking he was hoping to achieve on Maladroit?), and the band’s grooving hard behind him. Meanwhile, I air guitar enthusiastically from a distance…
10. But that’s just the first half! Wilson lets fly a drum roll, and now we’re in halftime breakdown territory — but Cuomo’s still going! First time I heard this part, especially when that second guitar (Brian Bell?) kicks in for a moment, I could scarcely believe it. Taken as a whole, this has to be my favorite Weezer solo since…I don’t know, that 2002 Toronto boot of “O Girlfriend?”
11. That bass-heavy bridge, suddenly all melancholy and introspective. “I’m too tired to fight” — nice emotional depth added to the song, and a nice little expansion on the message of the song too (Cuomo hates the daily grind but, like everyone else, is too worn down to fight it — thank God he’s got the guitar, right?).|
12. At this point in the song, the rhythm section is awarded a gold medal. Wilson’s given free rein to indulge in some subtlety for once (I love the tantalizing way he refrains from any cymbal crashes for such a lengthy stretch), and Scott Shriner’s nimble fretwork gives him an equally rare opportunity to flex his chops a bit (to great benefit of the listener, no less). Bell’s little atmospheric guitar touches here are award-worthy, as well.
13. Speaking of Cuomo classics (or near-classics), this whole bridge moment reminds me of 1992′s “Lemonade” — the way in which what sounds like such a simple and happy pop song breaks down into something a little more forlorn, for a time. And frankly, I think “Stack” does it even better.
14. Then everthing builds back up — dare I invoke the spirit of “The Good Life,” here? Dare I do: it’s the only Weezer song I can think of that has such an ass-kicking solo that suddenly breaks down into such an extended beautiful one, and then a build back into the song’s main structure. Granted, of course, “The Good Life” is a much superior song — but only because it reaches further (for example: any song that attempts slide guitar glory, and achieves it, is a winner). “Stack” delivers, albeit with slightly less ambitious intent.
15. At the end of the buildup, a well-placed and entirely justified pickscrape! A rarity in any song by anyone.
16. Final chorus fakeout: new riff drops, Cuomo screams like hell, screams like hell again, and then we are delivered back into pop chorus heaven.
17. Cool device in and of itself, but seriously, that scream is one of the best Cuomo’s ever laid to tape. Damn!
18. Final chorus! Once again, a bit different from the first two. My only gripe here (and with the entire song) is that I wish the “blowin’ my stack” gang vocals in the background were a little higher in the mix, but what a small gripe that is indeed.
19. Cuomo’s last “stack” shout. Yes.
20. The little drum roll and guitar hit at the end. Indeed, this sounds like a BAND playing, not a song being constructed piece-by-piece. A really good band, too!

Really, I can’t imagine the last time a Cuomo POP song made me feel this happy just to sing and dance along. Perhaps “Photograph” — but even “Photograph” doesn’t have anything like the solo, breakdown, or build that “Stack” does.

My impression is that this is the sound of a 2000s Cuomo tune penned with the sensibilities of the ’90s Cuomo we all know and love. It’s got that same pop flair that “Tripping Down the Freeway” and “The Other Way” do, but it’s just executed with so much more creativity, life, and attention to detail in the mix. It’s made all the more impressive by knowing that — aside from some small recent additions (that scream, for example; who knew Cuomo could pull that off past 40?) — this song was one of some dozen or so almost-finished leftovers from 2005′s notoriously hollow Make Believe, along with other winsome tunes like “I’m A Robot” and the surprisingly good new(er) version of “I Don’t Want Your Loving.” What else we missin’ out on from these sessions, fellas?

Superfriend

I hesitate to call any one lost Weezer song “the one that got away,” because there are so many: Green era demos like “No Way” and “Burning Sun,” the Make Believe version of “Love is the Answer” (later desecrated by Raditude trendchasing and Sugar Ray’s Sugar Rayness) and other tantalizing outtakes of ’05 like “Last Chance” and “You’re the One,” pretty much the entirety of Rivers Cuomo’s Homie project and various ’97/’98 compositions, and on. All of these have been heard in some fragmentary form or another, and yet the promising full picture to which they allude remains unreleased, uncirculated, just out of reach. One of the biggest reasons so many die-hard Weezer fans remain is because the band’s vault of lost gems looms so large.

“Superfriend” has long been such an artifact, and in some ways it’s one that’s simply unrecoverable. It was first mentioned to fans as a part of the incompleted rock opera Songs from the Black Hole, Cuomo’s original vision for Weezer’s second album and something of a very rough first draft for what became Pinkerton. Though the details of the song lean heavily on contextual detail from that scrapped project’s storyline, it was essentially written as a duet between two of the main characters, Jonas (Cuomo) and Laurel (to be voiced by Rachel Haden of the band called “that dog.”). Jonas is in something of a sexual relationship with Laurel, but he denies her love as she is little more to him than a “superfriend” — or”friend with benefits,” in high school parlance.

Die-hards began pining for “Superfriend” as soon as its origins were revealed, on the basis of it being a key piece of what some fans irrationally believed was a young Cuomo’s answer to Brian Wilson’s unfinished SMiLE opus (the main difference being that Wilson had almost completed recording SMiLE by the time he abandoned it in 1967, whereas Cuomo hadn’t even passed the writing/demoing phase when he ditched Black Hole). Audible details of the song first surfaced in 2004 on Weezer’s Video Capture Device DVD, which included spotty and patchy footage of the band recording a rough take during Pinkerton studio sessions — as well as a brief clip of Cuomo playing a classical arrangement of the vocal melody on an acoustic guitar.

The inconclusive footage gave glimpse enough for fans to conclude that “Superfriend” was indeed a lost classic worthy of its vaunted era, but it wasn’t until the 2007 release of Rivers’ Alone home demos compilation that fans could get a closer look. The juvenile charm of this embryonic version is indeed something of a treasure, but it still left most wanting more: Cuomo’s drumming is particularly sloppy, his falsetto background vocals (meant to represent the female lead vocal) sound like sour milk, and it lacked the dramatic key change climax heard in the VCD clip. It was clear that this take was a dashed-off demo that the Cuomo of ’95 would’ve never imagined being officially released, and did little to sate fans’ desire for the full band picture.

With the deluxe edition re-release of Pinkerton less than a month away, it’s now clear that such a thing no longer exists — if it ever did. In gleaning the archives for outtakes, band historian Karl Koch discovered that the ’96 full band recording seems to have been erased long ago. And even if it were to be uncovered in some unlikely place, it’s a very rough and incomplete rehearsal run-through, far from the glory of a finished and fully produced Cuomo-Haden duet.

That leaves us with the unfortunately shambolic demo — which, despite the shortcomings, gives a plenty fine sense of what the song was meant to be. It’s a disarmingly personal and juvenile song, perhaps even uncomfortably so (opening lines: “What the hell am I doing, thinking with my willy? / Knowing I don’t love her / I tell her no / Then kiss her toes…”), something that the Black Hole opera’s character construct couldn’t hide even if it were in place. The melody’s absolutely wonderful, though, and the chorus’ teen angst appropriation of the “rain, rain go away” nursery rhyme (“pain, pain go away” — of course) actually works, against all odds. The counterpoint in the second verse is absolutely botched by Cuomo’s lazy falsetto attempt, but it hints at what might’ve been a very nice touch.

If anything, that’s the way “Superfriend” might well be “the one that got away.” While songs like “You’re the One” or “Rosemary” were completed in some form and will likely surface someday, the best that can be said for “Superfriend” is that it’s a good sketch of what was to be a great song.

Hurley review for Slant

Check out my hot-off-the-press review of Hurley for Slant. If you wanna be a doll, retweets and Facebook linkings can easily be done just beneath the album cover. 8-)

Hope to get a new TVS post up soon, but in the meantime, there’s a couple doses of track-by-track Hurley commentary below…

Run Away

Seeing how I did the knee-jerk reaction thing for one of Hurley’s lesser tracks (the unfortunate first single/opener, “Memories”), I thought I’d do something similar for one of the new album’s best. (Two relevant parentheticals, first: though I still deem it a negligible tune, “Memories” does fare a bit better in the context of the record than as a standalone. Also, while I discussed “Memories” within the span of a couple listens/minutes, I’ve given this one a little more time and space to dry.)

The song is the first on Side Two: “Run Away.” As with other recent victories like “Pig,” “Run Over By a Truck,” and “The Underdogs,” this song doesn’t merely succeed, but does so in a way I could’ve scantly imagined hearing from Weezer (as an album track rather than an outtake, no less!). I hear, compacted into its concise few minutes, very clear traces of subterranean ‘90s heroes like Daniel Johnston, Guided By Voices, Built to Spill, and the like-minded – implemented with an impressively shifting palette that’s rare in Rivers Cuomo’s work (the closest analog I can think of is “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” and that’s more of a patchwork exercise in genre distinctions than a song, per se). The lyrics seem a bit weak on paper but work nicely in context (a more typically Cuomo trait), fitting the bill for a good description others have used for Hurley’s lyric sheet: like a slightly more poetic, far more successful Make Believe (lots of melodramatics, here). The music takes a slight turn for the predictable when Cuomo very self-consciously channels the Pinkerton aesthetic in the bridge (kinda like how that Pet Sounds percussion seems to turn up on a song or two of every Brian Wilson album, now), but he pulls it off pretty nicely, and – well, there are much worse things one could complain about, no?

The song begins with another fanboy dream come true: Cuomo singing alone at his piano, lo-fi as fuckall, clearly sourced from some scratchy home demo (a la “Broken Arrows” or “I Admire You So Much”). Really does sound like Dan Johnston to me, and one of his better moments – before Weezer dramatically segues the arrangement into a pretty wonderful verse, cut on wiry Doug Martsch guitars (the lyrics have a touch of classic Built to Spill, too: “When I’m lookin’ at the night sky, I can see my soul / I see the little lights flashin’ at each other up above”). The ooh-ooh pre-chorus has a flair of ‘50s rock’n’roll to it (in the vocal melody, too), and the transition back out of the chorus is where I hear that mid-period GBV (the guitar arpeggios, from the playing to the production, really call to mind Doug Gillard on the Ric Ocasek-produced Do The Collapse album). Cuomo’s vocal, like much of Hurley, sounds more unhinged and emotive than it has in years (that “nah!” before the second verse is worth more than he knows) — it’s a great thing to hear at last. Cuomo winds up doing the Pinkerton throwback, then builds into a one-word refrain that feels like it simply gives up rather than finishes the song proper. It definitely could’ve gone somewhere else, but the sudden collapse ably fits the tune’s mood and sentiment.

Of the majority I’ve heard, I’d be willing to venture that “Run Away” is the second best offering Hurley has to offer. Writing that out makes me feel a bit less excited about the record than I did a moment ago (it’s roughly on par with or better than what I’d say is second best track from the past few – “Tripping Down the Freeway,” “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” “The Other Way”), but the distinction here is that this record has at least three songs that are almost as good as this one (plus, again, one that’s even better), which is more than I can say about any of the ’00s records with the exception of Green. So if Hurley manages to keep pace with this standard (roughly…I know I hate “Memories,” and “Where’s My Sex?” sounds like it’ll be a true disaster), it should have no trouble being overall the fourth best Weezer album. Perhaps a pretty darn close fourth.

Still, “Run Away” is emblematic, for me, of Hurley’s limitations as an album. First and foremost, while “Run Away” features some of the best ideas Weezer’s put on record in a decade, they’re not all Weezer’s. It’s hard to know how much to credit Cuomo for a good song when part of the songwriting credit goes to a skilled and proven peer in the industry: Ryan Adams, in “Run Away’s” case. Hearsay (/wishful thinking?) from other fans have led me to believe that all the musical ideas in this song are Cuomo’s whereas Adams’ main contribution was merely telling Cuomo to place together ideas from two then-unrelated song scraps (first of all, probably untrue; second of all, essential to the finished product’s charm), but I don’t have a source for that. And not coincidentally, the one song I’d place above it is a co-write, as is the first song I’d place below it – all done with genuinely respectable and well-known musicians (well-aged legend Mac Davis, whose claim to fame is having written for Elvis Presley — and Dan Wilson of Semisonic, about whom I know little but esteem solely for the classic “Closing Time”). Which suggests a couple obvious things…including the fact that Cuomo really ought to stop “writing” with “artists” like Aly & AJ, already.

(Quick aside: in addition to being a not-really-Cuomo-Cuomo composition, this is likewise a not-really-Weezer-Weezer recording. Cuomo sings and drums, Adams plays lead guitar and bass, and I’d have to see the credits to know but it seems like some of the band was made absent from these particular proceedings. The end result sounds great, so I don’t particularly care, but it’s something worth noting for what’s billed as a Weezer song.)

Green, on the other hand, is solely the work of Cuomo at his most dictatorial (and Weezer at their most fearfully compliant) – which, if nothing else, means we know who to credit and fault. Which brings to mind the point that Green’s also a faultless record, both in that it’s ironed and spitshined to the point of near lifelessness (bad) and that there’s not a bad moment on it (good). Great, in fact – what it largely lacks in excitement, it ably compensates with reliability and the last batch of perfect melodies (and harmonies) ever cranked out by the Cuomachine. There’s not an embarrassing thing about it, whereas Hurley boasts “Where’s My Sex” (of which I’ve only heard a brief clip, though it was a particularly Fred Durst brief clip) and a couple other tracks that may yet be cringeworthy, as well as a meme-joke of an album cover that should’ve been an impetus to come up with a new title rather than to settle on this one (yes, these things matter – compare that to the immaculate, Mikey-complemented style of the Green sleeves). In the end, I’m optimistic that Hurley will be a solid #4 and might even signal a promising change in the winds of Weezer, yet unfailingly skeptical that this could surpass or even match Album Number Three (chronological and qualitative).

Mrs. Young

When Rivers Cuomo opened up Weezer’s songwriting (and lead microphone) to his three bandmates on 2008′s Red Album, it struck both critics and fans as a surprising move from such a typically autocratic frontman. But the gesture was not nearly as unprecedented as Cuomo’s even more recent enthusiasm for collaborating on Weezer songs with outside songwriters, friends, and people of all walks of life — a la Raditude and Hurley. History has shown that Cuomo has been at least somewhat sympathetic to the idea of his bandmates stepping into the =W= limelight: scattered glimpses into the band’s demo troves from the early aughts show that guitarist Brian Bell was pitching material for 2005′s Make Believe (the lovely “It’s Easy,” the otherwise “Rat Race”), and Weezer even played live a song or two each by Bell and drummer Pat Wilson during their adventurous 2002 tour behind Maladroit. And though they remain unheard like virtually all material of the era, four Bell tunes were regularly rehearsed by Weezer at practices in 1998, though Cuomo (whose writer’s block had spurred Bell to bring forth the songs) balked at the suggestion of recording them as a demo for the band. And though Cuomo handled much of the writing and sings lead on the songs, three of The Blue Album‘s songs feature backing tracks largely composed by Wilson.

But before any of that, Cuomo collaborated with original Weezer bassist Matt Sharp on a song called “Mrs. Young.” Likely inspired by Cuomo’s recent composition “Jamie” (indeed, an early version of Sharps’s song is listed in the Recording History as “Jamie II”), it was written as an ode to Jamie Young, the band’s lawyer at the time of their signing to major label Geffen Records. Sharp approached Cuomo with a mostly-finished draft of the song in May of ’93 for help with a couple sections and vocal harmonies, which Cuomo provided — his voice can be heard on the demo, if not perhaps his playing too. However, it was mostly Sharp’s tune, and one for which he sang lead — and seeing how there were at one point serious plans to release it as a b-side for an indie “Jamie” single (scrapped when the band finalized their thoroughly restrictive contract with Geffen), “Mrs. Young” would have been the first officially released Weezer song for which Cuomo took the back seat as early as 1994.

Looking back, it’s a dang shame that didn’t happen. “Mrs. Young” is a great song — perhaps Sharp’s all-time best — and one that is, against considerable odds, actually worthy of the “classic Weezer” period from which it hails. Sharp’s warm and melodic voice has never sounded better, in my opinion, and there’s a charming magic to when that first Cuomo-harmonized, softly strummed chorus swells into an instrumental breeze of harmonicas and guitars. Things get a little predictable when the trademark Weez crunch amp comes in at the two-minute mark — though to be fair, they’d probably just discovered the sound back then — and it sounds great, making room for a fantastic little solo and the song’s heartfelt final stretch. It’s no “Jamie,” but it comes surprisingly close.

Like “Jamie,” though, there’s no way this song could’ve fit on Blue, let alone Pinkerton — but had Cuomo at least been open to the idea of letting other band members write for Weezer on a b-side basis (or, as we see with Wilson’s case on Blue, as co-writers), perhaps things would’ve turned out a little differently. I can imagine Sharp perhaps not starting his own Rentals project, or at least being satisfied enough with his creative role in Weezer as not to leave it (or be discontented enough to act so troublesome that the band had little choice but to give him the boot — whatever was the case). Bell’s knack for songwriting is hard to deny, and with Cuomo’s help (especially one as focused and clear-headed as was his mid-’90s self), I think some great songs could have come from the partnership. And Wilson’s contributions to songs like “My Name Is Jonas” and “Surf Wax America” (hell, even an old scrap like “Lemonade”) have shown that his collaborations with Cuomo can be immensely fruitful. And while Bell’s best work has been his own (Cuomo’s never collaborated with him, ridiculously — Bell’s abortive rewrite of “Private Message” doesn’t count!), I don’t think Sharp’s ever done better than this one on his own, and with the exception of 2008′s solid “Automatic,” Wilson’s solo contributions to the Weezer name have been forgettable at best (2002′s “Reason to Worry” and “The Story Is Wrong,” last year’s “In The Mall”). Had the band seriously explored the possibility of collaboration earlier (at least during the Pinkerton fallout), I think we’d be looking at a different — and perhaps likely — kind of Weezer today.

In any event, the post-1993 life of “Mrs. Young” has been pretty interesting. Once it became apparent that Cuomo was content to leave the song behind, Sharp erased his bandmate’s contributions and rewrote it as “Please Let That Be You” — changing it from a lo-fi, autumnal reminiscence to a nightlit electro-pop ballad (the chorus lyrics left virtually unaltered). It’s a bit of a downgrade, for sure — I feel like Sharp’s sad robot routine in the verses feel a bit forced — but it’s still pretty damn catchy, and one of the highlights of his solo project’s debut album Return of the Rentals. From there “Mrs. Young” seemed largely forgotten, however, eventually turning up on the Rentals’ 2001 fan club-only collection, Excellent Stocking Stuffer — which might well have been the first time the original Sharp and Cuomo demo surfaced to the public, now that I think about it.

But thankfully, the story doesn’t quite end there. Instead, at a now-legendary Matt Sharp solo acoustic show in February of 2005 at Cal State Fullerton, during which he was joined for a few concluding songs with Cuomo — marking the first time the two had performed together since Sharp’s last gig with Weezer in 1997. In order, they played an appropriately heavy-hearted take on “Mrs. Young” (Sharp changing the opening lyric, “Since you called yesterday, I have felt so swell,” to “like hell”), a new mostly-Matt song they had recently collaborated on called “Time Song,” and the Blue staples “Say It Ain’t So” and “Undone – The Sweater Song.” The performance of “Mrs. Young” is a little sloppy, from both Cuomo’s apparent lack of preparation (reading from sheet music) and Sharp being in sentimental singer-songwriter mode, but it’s quite moving nevertheless — especially in its lovely bridge (“stand by my side, always be true”). The two Blue songs sounded great (Sharp’s improvised 2pac quotation at the beginning of “Undone” is classic), and “Time Song” shows the outlines of a song better than at least 90% of anything each of them had have released with their own projects since ’97. It all made Sharp’s little aside about how they had been working on new material for a record genuinely exciting — but any hope for that was soon quelled when Weezer’s Make Believe came out and proved to be something entirely different than what most fans had wanted, and any news of a Cuomo and Sharp collaboration subsequently withered and blew away. The two have unfortunately never played together again, the last place they were seen together at all being Cuomo’s wedding in 2006.


Memories

The way back has never been the way forward, for you or for me or for all the good folks we know in Weezer. Like people (they’re made of ‘em, after all), bands need to grow, develop, evolve — and in Weezer’s case, you can hear the sweet sound of progress in tunes like “Run Over By A Truck,” “The Spider,” “The Organ Player,” and “Pig.” Weezer are people, though, and nobody gets anywhere without making a few blunders along the way (some break down and cry; some rob banks, or murder; some release songs called “Cold Dark World”). Weezer’s fans are people, too, though, so it’s equally forgivable that sometimes they forget. Sometimes, Weezer fans want nothing more than a Weezer that plays it safe, that regresses, that simply sounds like they did back in those halcyon days of Blue and Pink.

Not me, I say — Weezer could record a free jazz record for all I care, as long as it’s bangin’ — but damn if this new one “Memories” isn’t more than just a little ironic. ‘Cause just when Rivers Cuomo decides to pen a song about wanting to “go back” (hey! I just listened to “The Good Life” this afternoon!) to the days when Weezer were a young and troublesome band of geeks banging out grade-A rock’n'roll (and pop, of course), the end product is something as far removed from those days as stylistically possible. I’m not sure if “Memories” is pop or rock or in what ratio the two relate during the song’s trim runtime, but whatever it is, it is bad in ways Weezer could have never imagined back then, and in ways Weezer fans could have scarcely imagined even by the standards of yesteryear. Say what you will about Raditude, but anything that we have from its sessions is preferable to this dreck, and the majority of Rad actually crushes “Memories.” Just like “Memories” crushes Weezer fans’ memories of Weezer more than any other of the band’s other (not uncommon) blunders, in that it not only sucks violently, it sucks violently while Cuomo is in the act of remembering when none of his music sucked. “Memories make me want to go back there,” goes the chorus again and again, and sweet damn do I ever find myself agreeing with him…which really isn’t my style! “Pig” might be my favorite Weezer song, dammit!

Okay, it’s a bit neat that Cuomo is screaming from the gut on this track like he hasn’t since the Kitchen Tape days that he’s singing about during the first verse, but only in theory (in practice, it sounds slop-poopy). And seeing how this song represents layer-upon-layer of sedimented nostalgia for Cuolmes — this is a 2010 revisiting of a song he home demoed in 2007, which was itself a revisiting of a song he wrote in 2003, about a time in his life roughly a decade prior to that — I can imagine that at one point or another, this song might have actually been kind of good. Hell, seeing how “Can’t Stop Partying” is at once one of the best (Alone II), worst (live in Korea ’09), and most confused (Raditude) things he’s ever done, there’s a chance that one memory of “Memories” might actually make for a great song (anything’s possible in Weezer’s universe, for better or worse). Because I’m a sick and miserable fuck, I’d really enjoy hearing every version of this song ever recorded and letting you know which is the best (Facebook me, Rivers) — but this new single version from the upcoming Hurley record cannot physically possibly be it. That’s how bad it is.

I’m talking in circles here, but in short: horrible verses (diseased melody, lyrics that go for quirky and wind up with fuck-stupid), one of the most remarkable spiritual deadzones ever placed in the “chorus” section of a Weezer song, a bridge and instrumental breakdown that do absolutely nothing, a grating self-congratulatory tone of wistfulness throughout, and jeez, yeah, that’s really all there is to this one-dimensional songscrap. This is the worst single Weezer has ever released, coming from a band responsible for insta-regrets on the order of “We Are All On Drugs.” This is maybe the worst album track the band’s ever released, actually, presuming this is Hurley‘s worst offering (which has never been the case for any =W= lead single, so…yikes?). And discounting “Cold Dark World,” too, because hey — people make mistakes.

Anyway, this right here right now is one too many for me, and I just needed to break the silence and share that with y’all while the wounds’re still fresh. I wanna go baaaaaaaaaaaack~~~

American Girls

It goes without saying that The Blue Album and Pinkerton are two very different beasts — the latter album’s commercial failure was proof that it was not the kind of record people expected after songs like “Undone” and “Buddy Holly.” But listening in hindsight, it’s clear that there’s a common thread between the two albums. Their songs feature the common traits of long, winding melodies (many of which were originally conceived as instrumental melodies on Rivers Cuomo’s guitar), harmonies that are deceptively complex (but seldom overdone), and lyrics that are by and large very direct and sincere (and yet somehow easy to misconstrue as ironic or lighthearted). And structurally, they all follow familiar verse-chorus-bridge structures, albeit with plenty of subtle changes deployed in the interest of being interesting (see: in “No One Else,” the way in which the vocals come in on the first beat for the first verse, and on the second beat for the second; or the endlessly winding structure of “Across the Sea“).

But after Pinkerton‘s initial tank, Cuomo made a very deliberate and marked change in his songwriting — and “American Girls” is the first fully-formed expression of his new musical mindset. It marks the beginning of his long obsession with rigidly strophic structure (i.e., the classic verse-chorus song structure, with very little variation between the first, second, and third of each; here, even many of the words simply repeat), one that would characterize the vast majority of his work from this early 1998 recording up through 2005′s Make Believe. There’s also the less personal, everyman-relatability of the lyrics: “Why are all American girls so rough? / Damn, a girl can’t ever hurt you enough.” And though the heavily produced piano and repetitive, looped beats are very uncharacteristic for Weezer, they’re not at all unusual for the kind of sanitized alterna-pop that was being made for the radio in the late ’90s.

Of course, this can partly be chalked up to the fact that although all “classic lineup” members of the band are featured, this song isn’t a Weezer recording, per se: it is instead the only officially released song by Cuomo’s more playful ’97/’98 side project, Homie. And furthermore, there’s the very interesting melting pot of musicians playing on the song: in addition to Cuomo (acoustic guitar, piano, lead vocal), Matt Sharp (co-production and background vocals), Brian Bell (background vocals), and Pat Wilson (live drums, “miscellaneous”), there’s Greg Brown of Cake (the tasty electric leads and solos), plus Sebastian Steinburg and Yuval Gabay of Soul Coughing (upbright bass and beat-looping, respectively).

Unsurprisingly, the result sounds like nothing else in the Cuomo canon (as lyricist, melodicist and lead vocalist, the song is more his than anyone else’s). It’s not the “goofball country” of Homie’s other material (none of which features any of the other musicians on this song), but it definitely has that goofy, summery vibe to it. Buried on the soundtrack of a movie called Meet the Deedles, it’s definitely a hidden gem — and essential listening for anyone hoping to craft a good mix for windows-down driving for the season upon us. A couple live bootlegs exist of the “Hard Rock Version” Cuomo played with his Boston cohorts at a few small gigs in late ’97, but the repetitiveness of this early arrangement is so insistent that the tune wears thin much faster than its later studio iteration.

Of historical interest is the fact that the studio version is the last time all the members of the “classic” Weezer lineup were present for a recording date. Sharp skeptics might be loathe to admit it, but it’s definitely a sad thing to hear his quirky falsetto in the second verse and know that it would never again be there to brighten the corners of another Weezer performance.


Kids/Poker Face

Once you get to a certain size and age as a band, it’s inevitable that you start making mistakes. A dozen million record sales and well over 15 years on the odometer definitely qualifies. And as the discography burgeons, with all its offshoots into outtakes, demos, and other strata of availability, the severity of a given mistake is a matter of its context. In Weezer’s case, for example, “I Don’t Want Your Lovin’” might be a truly abysmal song, but the fact that it remains a scratchy home demo one-take heard only by a self-selecting group of die-hards, it’s not that bad. It’s easy to forget; the blogs and critics never got a hold on it, there’s no Google cache record of the thing sucking so fiercely, its existence is a dark secret kept by the few who have heard it (and the fewer still who actually might kinda like it). “We Are All On Drugs,” on the other hand, was an ignoble blunder that was produced and distributed and shoved in people’s faces on a mass-market scale, and I’ve got the pink marble vinyl to prove it (which is the best thing about it, really). It’s definitely embarrassing, though thankfully most people seem content not to think about anymore; it was never a hit, the band never plays it live anymore, only dorks like me ever bring it up. And “Beverly Hills,” though many have come to appreciate it in some way or another, is largely remembered as such a gross offense because it’s one of those songs that’s come to define Weezer in the vague popular consciousness. Any dope brave enough to go about telling people Weezer’s his favorite band in 2010 is likely to have that lumbering schlock-rock riff hummed in his face, just like tons of people find a way to know the Beach Boys as little more than “that ‘Kokomo’ band.”

“Kids/Poker Face” started like a secret. The idea of Weezer playing the most covered/remixed/regurgitated song of 2008 (MGMT’s admittedly great “Kids”) in 2009 at a cellphone company’s day festival was a bit disheartening, especially when the band replaced the bridge with a painfully extended section from Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” as sung by a wig-wearing Rivers Cuomo (considering he shitraps the line “I’m bluffin’ with my muffin,” is it safe to say that hes’ veering into transexual territory?). But at it appeared to be a gimmicky one-off, the imaginationless mashup wasn’t really much to get worked up about. Besides, the band was being paid bushels to entertain a crowd that…well, probably mostly knew them as “that ‘Beverly Hills’ band.” Who cares, right? Hell, some folks in the audience probably thought “Kids” was a Weezer song!

But it wouldn’t go away. Soon, an official music video was issued. A recording of the song was released on iTunes as a Raditude preorder bonus track (almost hysterically bad in comparison to what it came with, the heartfelt and fantastic “Story Of My Life“). The blogs, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone wrote about it. There was no going back after that: it had become part of the canon. The stupid thing sank down a few notches, settling somewhere around the “All On Drugs” plateau of embarrassment.

But Cuomo doesn’t seem content to let it rest now, either. For the time being, it’s *still* a setlist staple, taking up 5 whole minutes of any given show (substantial stuff for a band that refuses to play any more than 80 minutes in a night), pushing out a theoretically infinite number of things most Weezer fans would rather hear. Meanwhile, MGMT have moved far from “Kids” (to the point that they only ever play the thing to parody it anymore) and are doing their psychedelic prog thing, while Lady Gaga has had about half a dozen (largely superior) hit singles in the meantime.

Though who cares about things like progress, anyway. This one’s there for all the folks in the crowd who came to see the “Beverly Hills” band.


Harvard Blues

It’s interesting that Rivers Cuomo notes in the sleeve for the Alone II demos compendium that by the time this little piece was composed — spring of 1997 — his ambitions to quit rock and become a classical composer by age 30 had already begun to wither. Even at the late date of 2008, when he wrote these notes, Cuomo was making excuses for himself: the first consideration he noted was that, while studying classical composition at Harvard, he was mostly just writing scholarly papers rather than composing much of his own material. Secondly, he felt that he couldn’t connect with the kind of classical they were brewing there in Boston: while Cuomo dug the emo-Romantic sounds of Puccini and Tchaikovsky, he found that “Harvard music…was modern, 20th century, atonal, serial, non-catchy and non-emotional.”

Of course, Harvard’s just one place he could’ve honed his craft, and a truly determined individual rarely dismisses artistic practice out of hand because of one or two bad teachers. Indeed, the truth comes out with Cuomo’s third point: his Puccini mancrush had done nothing but cause him pain, as the relative commercial failure of Pinkerton‘s Madame Butterfly-inflected rock’n'roll was, by early 1997, confirmed to be a no-go on the charts. And while one artist might have withdrawn deeper into his craft, perhaps dropping the rock and going full-out on the classical front as Cuomo had originally planned, this failure sharply stung the young man. How this would impact his songwriting was something that, in April 1997, remained to be heard — but by semester’s close, Cuomo had his heart set on the English major after all.

I mention all this as a preamble because this little piece, while “not a real song” (Cuomo’s words), reflects that the auteur’s experimental and explorative tendencies had not let up. His mind frayed to its limits by Ivy League academia, Cuomo made a sound collage out of a voicemail from his classmate Lucia, who had called to give him the details on an assignment that was given in a class he had missed, layering her voice at different speeds to create an altogether disorienting effect — culminating after 30 seconds with an anguished scream from Cuomo. (Whether or not it was one Cuomo intended to make, “Harvard Blues” serves as a witty comment in and of itself: at Harvard, even the blues are more intellectual than musical.)

In any event, this stands as a nice little lo-fi transition piece, which is how it functions just perfectly on Alone II: a great segue into the exhausted-schizo piano pop of “My Brain Is Working Overtime.” I almost regret that the randomized format of Teenage Victory Songs forces me to separate these tracks into separate discussions, but alas… The point remains: whereas the Cuomo of just a year or so later might find such a pursuit to be a waste of time, the Cuomo of ’97 was still interested in adventuring into sonic territory he had previously yet to chart. And though it would bear far less modest (and brilliantly inspired) results in the form of contemporaries like “Lover in the Snow” and “Rosemary,” this little audio paste-up is just as much a reflection of that creative curiosity as anything else.