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.