It’s the most obvious things that are the easiest to overlook. Like the early, underground days of the Ramones, when the bare-bones reduction of pop and punk seemed too simpleminded to matter but was quickly proven to be a brilliant, trailblazing invention, Weezer exists on two completely different levels of creative achievement. It’s no coincidence that Ric Ocasek — whose Cars essentially took the same dryly ironic route by way of Roxy Music — produced the Los Angeles quartet’s big-selling debut, which has a lot more going on than meets the ear.
Superficially, the by-the-numbers pop-punk record offers nothing beyond singer/guitarist Rivers Cuomo’s crunchy up-and-down melodies and enigmatic teenish lyrics, thickly tendered mid-tempo rhythm guitar rock and the impression of a dweeby/bland offstage personality. (The album cover comes as close to generic as a blue-background band photo can be.) But twisted into the threadbare lucidity of seemingly pedestrian nonsense like the enervated frat-Val anxiety of “Undone — The Sweater Song,” the incongruous hip-hop slang and giddy culture references of “Buddy Holly,” the unconvincingly beach-crazed “Surf Wax America” and the Kiss-praising “In the Garage” (a ’90s answer to Brian Wilson’s “In My Room”), there’s a sardonic disclaimer of responsibility. Weezer has perfected the art of pissing on itself, both embodying and renouncing the ethos of pop in one sly strum. Weezer is something of a ’90s marker, a deliciously entertaining piece of crap that floats in the punchbowl like a rare jewel. “I got an electric guitar / I play my stupid songs / I write these stupid words and I love everyone waiting there for me.” How postmodern can a band be?
Stepping over the irony-laden line — squaring the archness, as it were — with inadequate song ammo and no obvious stylistic purpose, Weezer bassist Matt Sharp and drummer Pat Wilson formed the Rentals, adding vintage Moog synthesizers, violin and female voices to their other band’s thick guitar distortion and clocklike rhythms. Return of the Rentals calls to mind such self-conscious nostalgists as the Pooh Sticks and Denim, letting the soft voices of Cherielynn Westrich and that dog’s Petra Haden (as well as the latter’s violin scrolling) add a nice counterpoint to the pedal-pushing. But rather than use the dated electronic keyboards to hammer home the Cars comparison, the Enoesque squiggles do little more than accent the sizzling Weezerisms with pretentious ’70s-goofing insincerity. On its basic merits, the album isn’t significantly inferior to (or intrinsically different from) Weezer, but the gap between its ambition and achievement makes it eminently resistible.
Weezer returned in 1996 with Pinkerton, an ambitious but flawed quasi-concept album about love and Madame Butterfly. Littered with Japanese references, it is quite startling at first. Standouts including “El Scorcho,” “The Good Life,” “Why Bother” and the beautifully haunting “Butterfly,” but what really registers is the sound of a band — whose ironic sensibilities must always be considered — taking itself less than seriously.
After Pinkerton bombed, Weezer went away for a few years. Sharp left in 1998 and released a second Rentals album, Seven More Minutes, in 1999. With guest spots from Miki Berenyi of Lush and Damon Albarn of Blur, it’s quite different from the debut: a quiet, semi-acoustic reflection on love lost. Cuomo co-wrote “My Head Is in the Sun.”
Weezer came back in 2001 with former Juliana Hatfield sideman Mikey Welsh on bass and released the poppy Weezer (green), again produced by Ocasek. While the catchy “Hash Pipe,” “Knock-down Drag-out” and the surprising ballad “Island in the Sun” work here, the album is basically a drag.
Welsh suffered a breakdown in late 2001 and was replaced by Scott Shriner. The subsequent album, Maladroit, is a disaster, a misguided attempt to inject a heavy metal influence. The only notable song is “Keep Fishin’,” but it’s just not catchy enough to reclaim past pop glory.
During the next Weezer hiatus, drummer Pat Wilson hooked up with Atom Willard of Rocket From the Crypt to form the Special Goodness and release Land, Air, Sea and Sharp released a solo album. With Rivers inactive, the band’s future was questionable until the 2005 release of Make Believe. While the album, produced by Rick Rubin, does undo some of the damage of Maladroit, it’s not a cure-all. With typical irony, “Beverly Hills,” the quasi-rapped first single, makes fun of Hollywood phonies while reveling in decadence. The only other standouts (also released as singles) are the neurosis-inflicted “We Are All on Drugs” and the poppy “Perfect Situation.” Otherwise, Weezer goes through the motions with predictable results.
As the band again went their separate ways, Sharp unveiled a new Rentals lineup and EP, The Last Little Life, and Cuomo released a collection of demos, including material for the band’s second album, which began life as Songs From the Black Hole and ultimately appeared as Pinkerton. It also contains covers of Ice Cube (“The Bomb”) and Dion (“Little Diane,” with backing by Sloan).
Weezer (red album), co-produced by Rick Rubin and Jacknife Lee (who has worked in the studio with Snow Patrol and R.E.M. and was a guitarist in Compulsion), is slight and flimsy (10 songs, 42 minutes), but finally returns the band to its peak entertainment level. “Troublemaker” is a good start and things get better from there, with the Timbaland-mocking “Pork and Beans” to the Gordon Lightfoot-Eddie Rabbit-Quiet Riot-referencing “Heart Songs.” The six-minute “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)” has everything from a bit of rapping to straight-up pop. (Despite that success, rap is not an advisable direction for Weezer: the worst track here, “Everybody Get Dangerous,” goes further down that path.) In a surprising abdication of Cuomo’s centrality, Wilson and guitarist Brian Bell each wrote a song here; Shriner collaborated with Cuomo on “Cold Dark World.”