Thursday, December 27, 2007
No. 297: Weezer
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Weezer's was a perfect moment in time. The band was a perfect fit with their producer (former Cars front man and walking death Ric Ocasek), the record was perfect for its time (post-Nirvana void) and the album was released just before MTV began its steady decline (due to its eschewing of rock and roll).
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Looking at it from a modern perspective, I'd probably place it higher. The cultural relevance of this album, I think, is pretty big.
Best song: I love every song on this album, though "Say It Ain't So" is my favorite song from the album. At this moment.
Worst song: "Only In Dreams" is the album's lowlight and that's only because it's long. Otherwise, it's a near perfect album.
Is it awesome?: Yes.
It's hard to overstate this album's influence.
As I wrote in "Some Girls," the playlisting of certain albums is undeniable. "Weezer" came out at a time when MTV still pumped up rock and roll and the burgeoning subculture. The band's relationship with Spike Jonze (he directed the "Buddy Holly" and "Undone - The Sweater Song" videos) made it so that the album's videos were played often on MTV. The band's hooks and general demeanor (something I'll touch on later) meant that they were played almost constantly on MTV in 1994 and 1995.
American pop culture is incredibly post-modern and the early 1990s, the 1970s hadn't gotten their turn as "decade of the past du jour." In the '70s and early '80s, '50s nostalgia was popular (see "Grease," "Happy Days," "M*A*S*H," etc.) and the mid-'80s until the early '90s -- only within the subculture, mind you -- saw a '60s revival (The Doors movie, the Woodstock re release, etc.). The culture was adopting punk rock in a lot of ways -- Sub Pop's entirely popularity -- but mainstream 1970s culture was never really recycled.
Weezer did that. Like the first Boston album, the band's debut is filled with huge guitars, a big drum sound and even bigger hooks.
There's also the nerd thing.
Weezer is widely credited for being the band that brought nerdiness into the mainstream. I'm not going to totally argue with that, as they certainly brought nerd rock some credibility. I'm not going to make the case -- that a columnist at a rival student newspaper made while I was in college, though I can't find the link -- that every emo band was simply copying this album. That's nonsense, as the Braids of the world were doing emo before this record came out.
However, the nerdiness of Weezer had to have been completely influenced by the 1980s, the decade of the nerd triumph. While 1980s white popular music fell into two camps -- the extreme (hair metal, Flock of Seagulls keyboard nonsense, etc.) and the whitebread preppy (Hall and Oates, Phil Collins, etc.) -- 1980s film and TV was populated by tons and tons of triumphant nerds. Anthony Michael Hall (I know you were wondering if he has his own Web site. He does.) made a career largely out of playing a nerd who eventually got the girl. Hell, they made a whole series of goddamned movies about triumphant nerds.
Similarly, D&D -- a nerd staple that made its way into a Weezer song ("In The Garage") and a game that the band embraced -- was introduced in the mid-70s and gained huge popularity (among nerds, I guess) in the 1980s. In fact, the "nerd" archetype was mostly honed in the 1980s with the popularity of computers and role-playing games. Not surprisingly, the triumphant nerd storyline popped up soon thereafter.
So, Weezer really was a product of the 1980s in a lot of ways. The band's personal style was such that a song like "Buddy Holly" was an announcement of it; The look (that endures today) was mostly taken from the type of clothes the band wore. Sweater vests, thrift store t-shirts and (especially) thick-rimmed glasses endure, largely because Rivers Cuomo & Co. made it OK to wear them.
As many of the nerds from the 1980s were turning into 20-somethings in the early 1990s, Weezer game them a popular music voice. Instead of the largely inaccessible computer rock of Kraftwerk, Can or Neu!, anyone can sing along with "My Name Is Jonas," nerds and musicians alike.
Is Weezer itself responsible for these changes? Of course not. Everyone has a computer now and the wave of the Internet/personal computer was going to change a lot of things. But, Weezer gave it a face in the mid-'90s and that's not without its import.
The band's nerdiness had, I believe, another impact in the way Weezer was received. While grunge bands were taking heroin and singing about suicide (Pearl Jam), religion (Soundgarden) and war (Alice in Chains), Weezer was a group of nerds. They weren't singing about anything scary -- save for maybe Cuomo's brother's car crash and subsequent troubles in "My Name Is Jonas." In fact, the album is largely full of love songs, both platonic ("Buddy Holly") and romantic ("No One Else"). There's sadness ("Undone" is the classic outsider at the party story, as evidenced by the inanity of the spoken parts), but the album is mostly harmless.
MTV, not surprisingly, is the type of network that saw this potential and rode it. A big portion of the album's success is due to it coming along when MTV was powerful and pumped up the album.
But what of the music? Again, the hooks on the album are undeniable, a credit to both Ocasek and Cuomo. The band's bright sound is allegedly due to Ocasek's insistence that Cuomo switched his guitar pickup selection (he was on the neck pickup, Ocasek switched him to the bridge), but the songwriting is Boston-esque in its easy iteration of classic themes.
"No One Else" and "The World Has Turned And Left Me Here" are classic jealousy/breakup songs, with the latter being a wonderful experiment in a weird time signature(as is the wonderful love song "Holiday"). "In The Garage" espouses the nerd late '70s/early '80s lifestyle by name checking KISS, D&D and X-Men over an awesome distorted guitar riff.
The album also pays homage to the '70s sound by its distinctive guitar solos. While Cuomo is no Slash, his "follow-the-melody" solos add wonderfully to the songs. The easy lead line in "Holiday" is the type of thing that Ocasek surely had a hand in.
Similarly, the band's hard rock love peppers the album. Yes, they're nerdy, but the KISS poster "In The Garage" was loved for its guitar work. The guitar interplay during the chorus of "Say It Ain't So" is positively Sabbath-esque and the hard-driving guitar in "Only In Dreams" takes a great deal from The Pixies.
Matt Sharp's harmonies -- he taught himself to sing an octave above Cuomo's lead vocals -- add a Beach Boys-esque layer that is mostly forgotten when people give the album kudos. This, of course, is in addition the the fact that "Surf Wax America" is a direct homage to the Beach Boys, both in lyrical content (neither the Beach Boys or Weezer were surfers, yet they wrote about surfing) and in musical execution (the harmonic breakup at the end of the song).
I remember being put in charge of music at a New Year's Eve party a few years before the band's semi-successful comeback (on the heels of the green album). I remember playing this album and one of my friends commenting something to the effect of "Whatever happened to these guys?" No one knew, but we all agreed that this album was great.
And even after some post-blue album success (some. Not a lot.), this album endures. It's wonderfully poppy and filled with awesome hooks, big guitars and a fine all-inclusive nerdy sensibility.
Just for shits and giggles, here are the two Spike Jonze videos:
(The coolest thing about either video is that the band played to a sped-up version of "Undone," and Jonze then made the video in slow motion to achieve that particular effect. Also, dogs.)