It’s convenient that we go from one Maladroit outtake to another — especially when this is one of the best from the era.
Also known as “Big Chip,” “Don’t Pick On Me” first appeared in September of 2001, during the Sage and Sound (SnS) demos — one of current bassist Scott Shriner’s earliest sessions with the band. And from the very start, this early take suggests something that had been (and would be) missing from the Weezer sound for quite some time. The thick guitars that laden the intro explode out of the speakers with immediacy, burdened by a certain weightiness that suggests a heavy heart, or at the least some kind of complex emotion. A nice, fret-sliding transition carries into the verse smoothly — a winningly catchy slice of pop melody that floats above the surging brawn of an agile power chord progression. From there the song veers into a more predictably Maladroit chorus, albeit one that isn’t compromised by its rawk’n’roll intentions — the stop-start AC/DC rhythm actually sounds pretty cool when set against the nimble verses and the pretty half time guitars that introduced the song. And when those guitars reappear as a sort of bridge after the second chorus, augmented by an airy “whoa-oh-oh” vocal, it feels like the perfect respite delivered at exactly the right moment. Just as you’re thinking a solo would be nice, Rivers Cuomo delivers exactly what you wanted with just the right touch of blue sky reverb — the beautifully descending figure sounds like a shooting star bright enough to cut sharply across the light of day. A retread of the chorus at this point feels a bit like a gamble, but some added harmonies from Brian Bell justify the second go around, and ending with that surging verse feels right.
The band would attempt a re-recording of this song several times during the January ’02 Maladroit sessions, but every one of them feels like a subtle regression from the last. Some of Bell’s early backing vocal additions add a nice counterpoint to Cuomo’s lead, and I like the addition of the “Don’t trifle, don’t stifle me” lyric; hell, even a couple of the alternate solos that Cuomo tries out are interesting, but nowhere near the perfection of that SnS original. By the time of the last surfaced attempt we have, dated January 9th, the song had become a casualty of the fast-developing missteps and bad habits of the Maladroit era: Bell echoes nearly all of Cuomo’s lines with unimaginative, melodyless repetitions that only clutter the soundscape, and some of the potentially good added harmonies and counterpoints are too lazily performed and thought out to sound halfway decent. The integrity of Cuomo’s beautiful original solo is here desecrated, replaced by something that sounds as busy and tasteless as one of John Coltrane’s worst saxophone jerk-offs.
In the end, it’s good that the bastardized “Don’t Pick On Me” never made it to an official release, but the band could have simply mixed down the original SnS “demo” and walked away with perhaps the best song on what could have been Maladroit. In any case, the SnS version lives on in the hearts of Weezer’s more dedicated demo archaeologists as a bittersweet reminder of what could have been — even with a mindless set of lyrics typical of the era, the song’s earliest band incarnation is a real winner. This is one of a handful of tunes that have me convinced that Cuomo’s collection of home demos, and even some early band recordings, from this era contains some yet-unreleased gems and gold.