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Don’t Let Go

“I went through a massive Oasis phase in 97-99. I bet Liam [Gallagher] rubbed off on me. He’s a very non-dynamic singer. Perhaps his influence wasn’t a good thing.”
—Rivers, ‘asschun correspondence,’ 2002

Perhaps the best example of Oasis’ detrimental effect on our dear Rivers Cuomo is the original demo of “Island In The Sun,” wherein a very lithe, open-air sketch of the classic tune — lovely organ line and all — is all but ruined by a scratchy, deadpan vocal that sounds like that kid who broke his leg on purpose to get out of PE.

That concerted anti-dynamicism absolutely pervades The Green Album, however, and it’s apparent from track 1 — “Don’t Let Go.” The song floats along on a thick and creamy bed of chugging guitars and buried synths, a lil’ ole three-chord pop rock tune that is made minorly remarkable by the fact that its generic and predictable progression is played and layered by somewhere around seven or eight guitar tracks. And as if laying comfily upon the many six-stringed bed he has made for himself, Cuomo sounds just a bit too laid back to perform anything resembling a believable vocal. He hits the notes fine — especially when he doubles and triples his vocals in a winsome take on traditional doo-wop harmony — but there’s just no feeling or emotion behind his paint-by-numbers plea to a girl who’s thinking about walking out the door.

While we’re on the subject of Cuomo’s predictable lyrics assembly line of the era, it’s worth noting that the song’s repeated “Confrontation’s on my mind / Got me running out of time” bridge is pretty much the exact same melody and delivery as the all-too-similar opening couplet from Green b-side “O Lisa,” “Simple stages in my mind / Now I’m running out of time” (which itself sounds like a rehash of the chorus to Green album track “Simple Pages” — “simple pages on my mind”). Also, the “Don’t Let Go” lyric, “anything you desire I will set at your feet,” seems to have first appeared in a song we’ve as of yet only heard a brief rehearsal clip of, 2000’s dark and foreboding “No Way” — which sounds more interesting than just about any of the other songs referenced in this paragraph.

Slight tangents aside, “Don’t Let Go” simply wasn’t a respectable way to reintroduce the band whose last album-released thought was the beautiful and plaintive aubade, “Butterfly.” Half-hearted, phoned-in radio pop (that’s too boring even for radio — thank GOD Rivers wouldn’t let Geffen make it the first single!) of this kind should have never been the follow-up to two of the sharpest and most original pop rock records of the ’90s — and the bigger insult was that this was just the first three minutes of a record that, for the most part, rehashed this simple concept for the entirety of its all-too-brief 28-minute run. (Record reviewer Mark Prindle had a keen thought about this at the time: seeing how the band had taken five years to concoct less than half an hour of predictable pop rock on a record that was their *second* self-titled, he figured Weezer had been dipping into the heroin during their time off. Much less interesting than the true life story of psychosis and creative self-discipline that really got the band into this mess, but a funny insight regardless.)

Still though, there’s something mildly appealing about the way this modern ’50s-pop throwback is so careful not to offend, and that’s because at the heart of it, there’s the kernel of a good song here. Cuomo and company grappled with that concept for a long time: as early as summer 2001, guitarist Brian Bell and soon-to-be-jilted bassist Mikey Welsh were adding a couple new backing vocal melodies into the mix to fill out the song’s skeleton a bit, and there exists a bootleg of a truly bizarre performance from 5/19/02 in Fukuoka, Japan, where Bell injects some strangely-shaped guitar leads in the pre-chorus (some of the fuzz sounds rather out of tune and, albeit surely unintentionally, a bit Pinkertonesque!), new bassist Scott Shriner proffers some sour milk falsetto for the vocal fold, and Cuomo tears into a Mala-metal guitar solo that veers far from the unimaginative melody retread of the album version.

Still, it wasn’t until 2005 that the band really figured out how to do this one justice. Their AOL Sessions from that year document a new version of the track (half a step up) that benefits from some very-audible synth leads (played by Bell), backing guitar from touring tech man Bobby Schneck, a more nimble bassline as plucked by Shriner, and a Cuomo vocal performance that actually sounds like it gives a damn (Bell’s shouted harmony adds some muscle, too). Bell and Schneck indulge in a deuling guitar solo that breaks the monotony quite nicely, and Pat Wilson is even allowed to drum a fill here and there. Still, for my money the definitive version is the one we have from the band’s late-December ’05 dates in Japan, which you can see for yourself (in living color!) here:

“Don’t Let Go” — Live In Japan, 2005

Wilson hits the kit with dexterous conviction, Bell switches between the keys and the guitar with rock star poise, and Cuomo is in full-on popstar mode, running around the stage, grabbing the hands of Japanese fan girls, shimmying back and forth, and — most importantly — kicking the SHIT out of his vocals. The big crowd singalong during that doubled-up guitar solo is just the icing on the cake. When I add this song to the Grand Playlist, this is most certainly the version I’m thinking of.

Therein lies the problem, though: why’d it take Weezer more than four years to find the perfect way to play such a simple tune? One figures the boons of its current version would’ve been plainly obvious to the band while recording way back when…Though I suppose the demanding recording and touring schedules of the time simply took its toll on Cuomo’s better judgment (who gets the brunt of the blame for that particular era’s failures, as that was the height of his most brutally dictatorial period as frontman).

Interesting and worth noting: if you can find the “early leak” version of The Green Album (perhaps someone could post it to the comments?) and crank it on a system with a decent subwoofer, you might just be able to pick out the rather cool bass fills Welsh was playing in the studio (and were, even by this point, mastered and compressed to the point of near oblivion). Also, as we can see from the making of the Green Album footage on Weezer’s Video Capture Device DVD, a sort of gang vocal singalong for the chorus of this song was at one point recorded (featuring album producer/Cars frontman Ric Ocasek!), but if these recordings were ever used, they’re so far buried in the mix as to be nonexistent (like many Green tracks, Cuomo’s multi-tracked voice is the only one to be heard). Lastly, a live b-side version of this song was released (anyone remember on what single? my Googling can’t save me now), which captures a pretty unremarkable 2001 rework of the song (Bell sure is singing loudly…perhaps to make up for not being heard on the record!). Rather wittily, Cuomo offers up some post-song banter — “Or, let go…If you prefer” — which I feel was sadly the main inspiration behind releasing this particular performance on official disc. Ho-hum!