On paper, “California Kids” holds one of the stranger positions in Weezer’s discography. It’s both the opener and weakest song of 2016’s remarkable return to form, The White Album. It’s the one song I’d maybe want to replace, and yet it’s the lynchpin of the album’s central conceit – a beach-combing, day-and-night exploration of present day Los Angeles. In fact, demoing “California Kids” at producer Jake Sinclair’s home studio is how he and Rivers Cuomo warmed to the idea of making an album-length update of the young Brian Wilson’s iconic West Coast sound (apparently new management Crush Music’s suggestion)…but it was originally released as a single by the Japanese-language side project Scott & Rivers in 2014. Weezer’s eventual White Album arrangement would redact most of the Japanese take’s harmonies (sung by the song’s co-writer, Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson), which, if retained, would have been made for the most Beach Boys-esque moment on Weezer’s most consciously Beach Boys-inspired album.
Musically, it’s a bit less interesting. Like “Do You Wanna Get High?,” one issue is the on-the-nose fan service elements that strain to remind the listener of brighter times, like the “Pink Triangle” glockenspiel that opens the song and the later reference to old friends “back in Boston…never forgot[ten]” (a plausible nod to Pinkerton‘s conception). But like “Do You Wanna Get High?,” these self-conscious moments are still pretty effective from a songwriting perspective. Arguably worse, then, is the way the chugging, almost mall-punk chorus cloys – “The California kids will throw you a lifeline… / The California kids will show you the sunshine” – but it’s served up with just enough goodwill and gusto to get over. It also helps to know that, as Cuomo explained in a recent interview, the lyric originally came from his realization that despite his own typical East Coast upbringing, his two children are very much West Coasters in fact and personality. One might recall here how the chorus of Raditude‘s rancid “I’m Your Daddy” came from similar origins (Cuomo holding and reassuring his infant daughter during a trying time), and the rest of that song’s lyrics came from the same desire to broaden its accessibility for a general audience. So maybe it’s no coincidence that while “California Kids” would stand out for its relative merits on dog days albums like Rad and Hurley, it would fit much better on those records than on any other (whereas most of White seems to belong to a different world altogether).
In another sense, “California Kids” is most comparable to The Green Album‘s “Don’t Let Go,” as a statement of purpose that both introduces and undersells a great record. And like “Don’t Let Go,” I never want to hear “California Kids,” but in the context of its album I’m always a little surprised by how decent it actually is. That doesn’t quite excuse “Kids” from being the only White song that’s a bit undercooked, and it’s not hard to imagine it how much it could have improved with a little extra time and a lucky idea or two.