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Sheila Can Do (It)

Interesting that this sunny little gem was one of just six songs Rivers Cuomo wrote in 1996 — especially when you consider what the other ones were. The song keeps impressive company, being written between two considerable pairs: “Across the Sea” with “The Good Life,” and “Falling For You” next to “Butterfly.” Indeed, that’s more or less the best work of the best Weezer album, and when taken in context, a quality pop jam the likes of “Sheila Can Do It” becomes a little underwhelming. It’s not quite the slouch of the sparingly focused year — that would be the song Cuomo wrote next, “Sunshine O” — but as a warm slice of late summer alt.country, it doesn’t quite fit in with the dead-of-December album Cuomo was finishing up with those four 1996 classics.

Cuomo knew as much, and “Sheila” would have to wait another year to get its public airing — come late ’97, by the time that everyone had given up on Pinkerton ever reaching the same commercial plateau as its predecessor had. That resignation push Cuomo into the deepening pit of depression and pop chart obsession that would develop for half a decade (before crystallizing into the radio success of The Green Album), but you’d have no idea judging by the stuff Cuomo was playing live with his band during his stay in Boston. Although these shows were simply billed as “Rivers Cuomo” shows — the title Rivers Cuomo Band was a fan designation that caught on and stuck over time — this was one of the songs Cuomo considered separate from the Weezer name, instead pegged for the playful Homie sideproject that he began to plan in his mind.

The Recording History notes two versions of this song, one being a solo Cuomo demo recorded at his Boston abode in September of 1997, and then a full band rehearsal tape from later that fall. We have neither, but instead bootlegs of both its public performances, in November of that year. Generally speaking, the tape we have of the 11/4 performance at the Middle East club makes it seem like it was a pretty magical evening, and “Sheila” is at the heart of that: Cuomo announces the title, and one of the girls upfront can be heard exclaiming, “That’s me!” Cuomo marvels good-naturedly at the coincidence, then cues drummer Fred Eltringham to play the intro roll. The song is actually one of the last Cuomo compositions to begin with the chorus for a very long time (“Dreamin’” is the first song on an album to start with the chorus since The Blue Album!), and its cheerful melody bends nicely to the shape of the carefree refrain, “Sheila can do it / I can do it / I don’t see the problem with that!” — one that seems to tickle the audience Sheila and her friends. (Can you hear laughter from the crowd just before the first verse, or am I just hearing things?) The nonmelodic verses are mouthed off with shouting enthusiasm and would probably be mislabeled as “rap” by bitching fans if it were placed on a Weezer record nowadays, but it serves as a nice contrast to the sing-songy chorus. And when Cuomo tears into that beautiful wordless bridge right after Kevin Stevenson’s rodeo guitar-wrangling solo, no one could ask for more melody: it’s such a pretty, anthemic rush of “la la la” perfection, and perhaps my very favorite moment in all the Homie songs.

The 11/21 version replaces the introductory chorus with a nice bit of harmonica whistlin’, and the dueling guitar solo burns the neck just a little bit redder, but it’s otherwise a pretty comparable performance. (Also notable because Cuomo begins by asking if the Sheila from the earlier show was there — she was.)

Regrettably, Cuomo seemed to have forgotten this song for a long time. When the Homie project dissolved in favor of a greater focus on Weezer’s comeback circa early 1998, this song seemed to disappear with it. The first time Cuomo’s mentioned it since wasn’t until July 24, 2008, when he briefly posted a list of his favorite home demos on his website — notable not only because it mentions a 1996 home demo of the song not mentioned in the Recording History, but also because it’s the only song out of 1996’s small (but considerable) crop to make the list. Either way, this is a good sign that we might hope someday to hear a recorded version of this song from Cuomo’s vaults, perhaps on a future Alone release.

In the meantime, just this past February superfans Jack Mergist and Ryan Rowland released an online-only album entitled HOMiE Vol. 1, a very well performed and recorded tribute to ten songs that were either Homie material or tunes Cuomo played live around the same time. The Mergist-sung version of “Sheila Can Do (It)” is arguably one of the fantastic album’s best, at once a faithful restoration of the bootleg versions while also a subtle and tasteful improvement: the vocal arrangement gets a healthy layer of meat added to the bone, and the new intro — which takes the bridge vocal melody and expands it into lush choral technicolor — is something that the Pet Sounds-worshiping Cuomo of the ’90s would have killed a man to pen. One still hopes that the best version imagined by that Cuomo gets to see the light of day sooner or later, but in the meantime, HOMiE’s brilliant substitute might be better than the real thing.

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