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Thought I Knew

“Thought I Knew” is one of three songs off 2008’s Red Album to feature someone other than Rivers Cuomo on lead vocals. Those unfamiliar with the band’s history won’t appreciate just how surprising it was to hear that bit of news in the months before the album’s release. It hadn’t been since 1994’s Blue Album that anyone other than Cuomo received a writing credit (drummer Pat Wilson, co-writer of “Surf Wax America” and “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here,” and “My Name Is Jonas” – the last of which also featuring contributions from former guitarist Jason Cropper), and even then, Cuomo sang those songs. The band had experimented with having other members write and sing in the sessions for Make Believe, but none of those songs were considered for the final tracklist.

It had been a long time coming for guitarist Brian Bell, who submitted his first four songs to the band way back in 1998 — including two that eventually translated to his then-sideproject the Space Twins, “Butterfly Collector” and “Seventeen.” However, even though the whole band enjoyed playing these songs at rehearsal, Cuomo vetoed their consideration when it came time to submit a demo of new material to Geffen Records. The band did record several versions of Bell’s “Yellow Camaro” during the Early Album 5 demos of 2002, and even played it live during contemporaneous tours, but that was as far as he could get.

This song began as “I Thought I Knew,” a pretty, minor-key kiss-off aimed at a girl who had left him hanging, which Bell originally demoed for his current sideproject, The Relationship. Between acoustic strums and piano, Bell in this version mutters a series of half-hearted apologies that demonstrate the influence of Cuomo’s penchant for cliche: “Sorry if I caused you pain / Sorry I forgot your name / Sorry, but you left me out in the rain.” The second verse boasts some nice choral backing; the bridge develops with an able craftsman’s sense of pacing; and the synthesizer lays a blueprint for what could be a fine string arrangement throughout. It’s melodramatic, by-the-books stuff, but even as a blown-out, poorly transcoded home demo, it’s appreciably superior to much of what made the cut for the three preceding Weezer records. When fans discovered a new version would be on Red, many rejoiced.

Granted, the major-key Weezer version wound up showcasing their latter-day knack for futzing up a good thing. There’s an awful synth-drum intro (which, the liner notes point out, Wilson came up with “in a few minutes” — no surprise), cheap canned handclaps, and a sonic palette that sounds like something by Hootie & The Blowfish or Sugar Ray. On the plus side, Wilson — who usually drums — provides some crucial variation with his meandering guitar leads, to the particular benefit of the chorus. Cuomo went as far as to claim Wilson’s playing here makes for the best guitar on the album (and, by way of Cuomo’s stubborn refusal to offer any leads himself, he might be right). But generally speaking, the song fails to realize the original demo’s potential, which Bell had carefully mapped out: though one might wish to refrain from discouraging experimentation in Weezer (a more and more oppressively conservative group, as years go on), a professional rerecording of Bell’s version would’ve been a great improvement upon what they released instead.

Bell seems to agree: in a recent interview, he states that while he “really does like Weezer’s version,” he doesn’t think it was done to the best of the song’s potential. (He even attempted to pull it at the last minute, pushing with all his might to replace it with Cuomo’s vastly superior “Miss Sweeney” – easily one of the very few new century songs to match if not surpass the standard the band set in the ’90s – but remarkably enough he was denied by his master.) However, as Bell relates himself, “I was talked out of taking it off and [told] that it was important to have it on the record.”(Cuomo insisted his three sidemen each get their turn at center stage on the album, out of the presumptuous and selfish desire to condition fans to expect the same thing to happen at live shows. Cuomo, as he approached his 40s, sought more opportunities to rest his voice during Weezer’s incorrigibly short 80-minute sets.) Bell’s biggest qualm, like mine, was that the beginning of the song sounded, to his ears, “like a Mountain Dew commercial” — a hilariously incisive assessment. Either way, it quickly became clear that Cuomo’s authoritarian tendencies hadn’t subsided like he wanted it to seem.

For the band’s recent MTV Session, they turned in a sharply-dressed version of “Thought I Knew” before a live studio audience of…square dancers. In any case, it’s a beautiful performance — gone are the tacky intro and handclaps, the soft drink synth-drum, and all of the studio version’s other regrets. Bell does a great job fronting the band, Scott Shriner’s backup harmony is just what it should be, Wilson’s lithe guitar work is like that of a seasoned session player, and Cuomo’s cocktail kit backbeat is pleasantly understated. A studio recording of this arrangement would have likely been the best possible outcome.

15 Comments

  1. ThomYorke wrote:

    I still like this song more that most of the tunes on Red standard.

    The live version that was filmed of this is especially fantastic. Brian should be proud that his song stands out as one of the better songs put on an official album in the last 10 years.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 8:00 am | Permalink
  2. ThomYorke wrote:

    The production of this song bothers you, yet, you can stand to listen to anything on Raditude?

    The production is certainly cleaner than I prefer it to be too, but it’s not obnoxious and Pat’s guitar lines still come off pretty sharp. Brian’s vocals are kind of loud in the mix, but it’s not overbearing. There’s no “auto-tune” going on, or at least anything that’s super noticeable ala Can’t Stop Partying.

    What exactly is it that bothers you in the production so much?

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  3. danup wrote:

    I don’t even mind the laser drums on this, but Brian’s delivery is way too keyed up. And getting shout-y in the final chorus ruins the best part of the song, the melody of “thought I knew / but didn’t have a clue” and that great guitar line. I’ve always thought it’s a much more sedate song than the version he’s singing.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  4. noobcakesmcgee wrote:

    “Brian’s delivery is way too keyed up”

    Yeah, I have to agree. For some reason the vocals really bug me on this song.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  5. ThomYorke wrote:

    What you describe as “Keyed up” on this track would be considered subtle on Raditude.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  6. danup wrote:

    I disagree—say what you will about Raditude, and I won’t say a lot because I’m really pretty fond of it, but Rivers doesn’t really get in the way of the melody on any of the songs. Except maybe Put Me Back Together, which I’m on the record as planning to never listen to again.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  7. Soyrev wrote:

    Simply put, Brian watched the band push his song into a direction he wasn’t entirely comfortable with, then did his best to sing the part as well as he could. It doesn’t sound genuine because it isn’t.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  8. clonus wrote:

    The fact that Brian actually played “his version” of this song with the Relationship when they opened for Weezer on the Troublemaker tour is kind of hilarious. (I wonder if the lack of Brian songs on Raditude was due to him saving them for himself and preventing what happened to TIK happening again.)

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  9. AF wrote:

    I didn’t mind “Thought I Knew” at first (it survived my somewhat heavy-handed “not-ripping-all-tracks-to-iTunes” policy), but I think now it varies based on what mood I’m in when it comes on. It has a definite “for-popular-radio” production style which puts me off a bit. It’s also one of the (numerous) Weezer songs where I’ve questioned how much I would like it if it wasn’t them. While I certainly don’t think it’s /bad/, I’m not sure that I’d even rate it otherwise.

    I’m glad you linked to that MTV session – I hadn’t seen/heard that before, and while it doesn’t really stray from the album version I think it does sound nicer (slightly more natural-sounding) . Then again, that could just be psychological due to the addition of performance footage.

    I like the songs from The Space Twins’ “No Show” EP (the title track in particular) – it’s pretty sloppy and lo-fi, but to me it has a very “Kitchen Tapes” vibe to it. I remember I had a RealAudio file of the song on a floppy disk (this was back when almost all downloadable songs on the internet were in .ra format rather than .mp3!), but I only rediscovered it recently when looking through stuff in either the ATW media gallery or file request board.

    (Hmm, come to think of it, that file must have had the absolute shit compressed out of it if I was able to fit it on a floppy.)

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  10. OOS wrote:

    Definitely. Although, not Troublemaker. That one kinda falls in the too-rock-for-pop-radio, but too-pop-for-rock-radio category.

    I honestly dont understand how Heart Songs didnt get a single release. That was EASILY the best bet.

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink
  11. clonus wrote:

    This may have been mentioned before, but I was in two different restaurants weeks after Red was released, and Heart Songs was playing in both of them. I could easily see TIK being used in a similar fashion. I wonder if Weezer just didn’t want those songs to be singles, considering they bypassed them for TGMTEL, after which they gave up and moved on to Raditude.

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  12. Chris wrote:

    Uh, Soy… Jason co-wrote Jonas too.

    Also, shouldn’t IJTOTLOMD be mentioned because Petra Haden’s vocals make it the only Weezer song where lead vocals aren’t by a bandmember?

    Friday, December 16, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink
  13. Soyrev wrote:

    That’s true — good call.

    As for Jason’s co-write on “Jonas,” was that just for the (granted, essential) fingerpicking riff, or did he do more than that? Do we know?

    Friday, December 30, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  14. Chris wrote:

    Nope, all we know is the fingerpicking riff.

    Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  15. Chris wrote:

    (I guess they simply had no choice but to give Jason the credit.)

    Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

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