Starting Five: Weezer

maladriot LP cover
More or less an opportunity for the Internet to tell us we’re wrong, Starting Five is also a challenge: choose five essential songs, films, or books that get to the heart of bands, filmmakers, and writers that we love. Today we look at five essential songs from power-pop greats Weezer.

Starting Five: Weezer

by Chad Jewett

“Undone (The Sweater Song)”, Weezer (“The Blue Album”)

Released a mere 35 days after the suicide of Kurt Cobain and the attendant wane of grunge music, Weezer’s self-titled debut, forever known as “The Blue Album”, was initially welcomed as a bright, witty departure from the perceived gloom and humorlessness of the preceding era’s alternative rock. Weezer would also fit comfortably into the post-grunge slacker chic of the mid-90s, sounding like a more pop-friendly take on the kind of aesthetic being shaped by Pavement and Beck on albums like Slanted and Enchanted and Mellow Gold. “Undone (The Sweater Song)”, the album’s iconic first single, certainly traded in some of those signifiers, its lax, woozy pace and overdubbed slacker chatter practically declaring the song’s Gen X bona fides, while the track’s crystal-clear production and boosted choruses (courtesy of Cars mastermind Rick Ocasek) contrasted vividly with the murk of grunge. Yet the lyrics of “Undone”, devoted to disaffection, emotional isolation, and anxiety, aren’t all that far off from the feelings explored by Cobain on Nevermind, albeit delivered in a more playful, sunny timbre, the first of many times that Weezer would deftly balance light and dark.

 

“Tired of Sex”, Pinkerton

Pinkerton, Weezer’s belabored 1996 follow-up to the smash breakthrough that was “The Blue Album”, has grown to legendary status in the intervening two decades since its inauspicious release – now understood as an initially-underappreciated masterpiece and “difficult sophomore album” par excellence. Essentially gleaned from Rivers Cuomo’s post-“Blue Album” anxieties, the harrowing pain of an operation on one of his legs, and the difficulty of writing an abortive rock/space opera called Songs From The Black Hole, Pinkerton is a stream-of-consciousness, warts and all confessional, unafraid to be downright ugly, even as its melodies are often as sharp and tuneful as anything on Weezer. “Tired Of Sex”, the album’s muscular, stomping garage-rocker of an opener (highlighted by Matt Sharp’s blown-out fuzz bass), features all of that stylized misery – the song is certainly part of why Pinkerton is now considered an essential emo document – but, as is so often the case with Cuomo, sets it to a clever pop melody replete with a grand, climbing hook (“Tonight I’m down on my knees / Tonight I’m begging you please”) and fizzy synthesizers. Even at their most willfully abrasive, Weezer couldn’t help but turn nervous breakdowns into pop gold.

 

“El Scorcho”, Pinkerton

If most of Pinkerton was devoted to uncomfortably personal revelations and swan dives into troubled ids and super-egos, there are occasional moments of levity between bitter pills like “Getchoo” and heartbreakers like “Butterfly”. One such respite is “El Scorcho”, a stylishly shambolic indie-rock goof that suddenly launches into a hardcore bridge between acoustic-blues verses that sound like they’re held together with paper-clips and chewing gum (it’s one of very few songs that finds Cuomo wandering off-key). Indeed, one of the most direct lines to be drawn from Pinkerton to modern emo is the one leading from the warped fun of “El Scorcho” and the loopy spirit of bands like Algernon Cadwallader and Snowing. As with so much of Pinkerton, the song at once benefits from Rivers Cuomo’s ear for sing-along fodder (“I’m aloooot like you…”) and bassist Matt Sharp’s witty, cartoonish ad-libs, which tended to add a (now sorely missed) bit of rebellion and playfulness to Cuomo’s perfectionism. The song’s oddball riff is as memorable as its shouted chorus, the kind of thing a million guitarists would play on accident then forget, but which, Weezer, to their credit, recognized reflected precisely the gorgeously off-kilter psychology of Pinkerton.

 

“Photograph”, Weezer (“The Green Album”)

Following the initially tepid-at-best response to Pinkerton, Cuomo eventually left the band to continue his studies at Harvard, finally returning three years later in 1999. Supposedly stung by both the previous album’s reception and also likely having difficulty dealing with singing songs so unflinchingly personal in their honesty, the Weezer frontman instead delved even deeper into the pop classicism of the band’s debut. Legend has it that Cuomo began studying the structure of Nirvana and Beatles hits, trying to get to the root of what made a pop song truly work. With 2001’s Weezer (aka “The Green Album”), the band seemingly found their answer in some combination of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – compact two-minute confections that married the harmless and intentionally shallow love-song conventions of the former to the verse-chorus structure and hook-echoing guitar solos of the latter. The record works as a thirty minute sugar rush, of which “Photograph” is the highlight, complete with “Ooh baby” refrains, handclaps, spotless production (from a returning Ocasek), and harmonies stacked upon harmonies. While the depth and poetry of Pinkerton was missed, the sheer pleasure of The Green Album’s pop-art precision is an underrated consolation prize.

 

“Take Control”, Maladroit

Often considered the end of Weezer’s great first era, 2002’s Maladroit sounds uncannily like some abstract synthesis of Pinkerton and The Green Album, at times harsh and moody, at others bright and cheerful. It makes for a fascinating document, perhaps even the most interesting and rewarding of the band’s career, and certainly the most difficult to define conceptually (and thus the most fun to try to define conceptually). The LP runs the gamut, from bristling post-hardcore to spacey prog-rock to easy-going power-pop, sometimes within individual tracks. “Take Control” is one of those songs, its prickly verses recalling Sunny Day Real Estate as its stadium-rock riffs split the difference between Led Zeppelin and The Deftones. As is almost always the case with Weezer, the song has a soaring, rich chorus, yet “Take Control” is significantly darker and more thoughtful than the upbeat sweetness of The Green Album, even if the pop-arithmetic lessons Cuomo had supposedly learned in service of writing that record have seemingly stuck around for good. With “Take Control”, it all adds up to a song that manages some of Pinkerton’s sharper angles while also producing a guitar-pop song that is complicated and winning, all at once.

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