I’ve been described as a big kid.
I know it’s meant as an insult, but I never take it that way. I haven’t done the things most people my age have done – marriage, kids, the house with the picket fence – and I have no interest in them. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I spend most of my disposable income on music. And this week, just for fun, I bought a box of Boo Berry cereal. The cashier probably thought I have a three-year-old at home or something, but I just wanted the blueberry-marshmallow goodness.
I also honestly like silly pop music, the kind that captures the giddiness of young love and endless possibility and sets it to catchy, inescapable melodies. If it’s done well – The Click Five, for instance, or this year’s Tinted Windows album – silly power pop can fill me with joy like no other music can. I don’t want to say it makes me feel younger, because that’s not quite right. But it does make me feel like I’m still young, and the horizon is an infinity away.
It was exactly that affinity for power pop that led me to Weezer in the first place. I wasn’t overly enamored of “Undone (The Sweater Song),” but when “Buddy Holly” exploded on the scene, complete with its Happy Days video, I was sold. I’ve never understood why people consider Rivers Cuomo some tortured genius – when he’s at his best, his music is silly and overflowing with giddy happiness. Even on Pinkerton, which many hold up as proof that Cuomo has hidden depths yet to be explored, the best songs turn his simple angst into super-fun pop.
Since then, it’s been a bizarre downward slide, culminating in the so-bad-it’s-amazing Red Album from last year. As a wise man once said, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid, and Weezer seemed to be getting stupider with each new single. “Beverly Hills.” “Troublemaker.” “Pork and Beans.” These are dumb songs, but they’re not dumb-fun songs. They’re just dumb. In my review of the Red Album, I said playing the classic Blue Album and this back to back was akin to looking at before and after pictures of a stroke victim, and it still feels that way to me.
Cuomo hasn’t gotten any smarter on his band’s seventh album. In fact, from all advance outside appearances, it looked like this one would be even more idiotic and unlistenable than the Red Album. It’s called Raditude, the front cover features a high-jumping dog, and it contains songs with titles like “The Girl Got Hot” and “I’m Your Daddy.” I braced myself for another depressing round of stupidity disguised as fun, and sharpened my critical knives for the dissection.
But you know what? I like it. Raditude is, in fact, my favorite Weezer album since Pinkerton. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.
Here’s the thing. Raditude is an incredibly dumb record, but it’s just so much fun. I felt the ridiculousness of the last two Weezer albums evaded Cuomo – he actually thought these were good records. But on Raditude, I have no doubt that the bespectacled wunderkind is in on the joke. These are songs about going to clubs, hanging out with friends on weekends, wasting time at malls and trying to impress girls – basically, all the preoccupations of a 15-year-old. The four band members are pictured riding their dirt bikes on the back cover. This is a giddy album about being young again, and fittingly, the band sounds revitalized.
Cuomo is 39 now, so penning a record full of teen-pop fluffiness might seem like a mid-life crisis, if it weren’t so convincingly energetic. Opening track and first single “(If You’re Wondering if I Want You To) I Want You To” is the catchiest Weezer song in many years, its rousing chorus coming on like a freight train full of awesome. On the Red Album, Cuomo looked back on his youth with wistful nostalgia, but here, he’s right in the moment, 15 years old again. He compliments his lady friend’s Slayer t-shirt, watches Titanic and goes to Best Buy with her, and then advises her to “make a move, ‘cause I ain’t got all night.”
The whole album is like this, peppered with pop culture references and wide-eyed teenage love and drama. “I’m Your Daddy” is about meeting the girl of your dreams (“You’ve got the brains, the body and the beauty, to top it off, you’re cool”), while the Gary Glitter-esque “The Girl Got Hot” sensitively examines the effect of female body maturation on the male libido. (No, it doesn’t: “Satin tights, boots so white, leather handbag out of sight, what used to mean a little now means a lot, oh my goodness me, the girl got hot.”) All of this set to some of the crunchiest and most convincing power pop of the band’s career.
Cuomo deviates from the guitar-heavy pop template three times on Raditude, and things get dicey when he does. “Love is the Answer,” originally performed by Sugar Ray (and there’s a phrase to chill the blood), is here an Indian-flavored stab at a George Harrison-style anthem, complete with sitars and wailing female vocals. Closer “I Don’t Want to Let You Go” is a sophomoric ballad about not wanting to break up, the kind a budding junior high musician might pat himself on the back for writing. It’s nice, but pedestrian.
And then there is “Can’t Stop Partying,” the strangest thing Weezer has ever done. It was co-written by Jermaine Dupri, produced by Polow da Don, and it features a guest rap by Lil’ Wayne. It’s an anomaly here, because there’s no joy in it – it’s a dark look at party addiction, setting club-banging lyrics (“Monday to Sunday, I get all the clubs, and everybody knows me when I pull up…”) to minor-key electronic music and haunted “woah-oh” backing vocals. This shouldn’t work at all, and the fact that it works as well as it does is… well, stunning.
But then the band is off and running on “Put Me Back Together,” and all is right with the world. When Weezer sticks to sweet power pop, as they do on 70 percent of Raditude, they knock it out of the park. “Trippin’ Down the Freeway” could have been on the Blue Album, and “In the Mall” could have fit nicely on the underrated Green Album. Cuomo and his bandmates sound like they had a grand old time recording Raditude, and the result is the most fun you’ll have in 35 minutes this year. (Sorry, Tinted Windows, you’re in second place now.)
Raditude sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a teen movie full of hormones and love triangles, so it’s kind of a surprise that the actual soundtrack to a film just like that, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, is utterly devoid of that kind of energy. Even moreso than the music from the first Twilight movie, this is a low-key, maudlin listen – which is, honestly, what the soundtrack to my teenage years was. I didn’t have Weezer-style fun as a young man, I was too busy trying to Be Something Important. And that’s the sense I get from this soundtrack.
And like most soundtrack collections, I find I like about half of this. I bought it largely for the killer opening track, Death Cab for Cutie’s “Meet Me on the Equinox.” It’s another typically excellent literate pop number from this band, with a nice melody and some wonderful Chris Walla guitar tones. Even with its rain-streaked, grey-sky mood, this is one of the most upbeat numbers here, as you probably could guess from scanning the list of contributors: Thom Yorke, Lykke Li, Anya Marina, Grizzly Bear, etc.
The highlights are all dark pieces – but then, what do you expect from the second in a series of increasingly darker vampire movies? Justin Vernon and Annie Clark, also known as Bon Iver and St. Vincent, collaborate on the beautiful “Roslyn,” performed with little other than acoustic guitar and their spectral voices. Anya Marina’s “Satellite Heart” is simple and sad, and Grizzly Bear’s “Slow Life,” which they played with Victoria Legrand of Beach House, is typically gauzy stuff.
But even some of the bands you’d expect to rock out delivered slower tunes for this disc. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club eschewed its normal Jesus and Mary Chain sound for the atmospheric blues of “Done All Wrong,” and OK Go hints at its new album, which, like the nearly tribal “Shooting the Moon” here, was produced by Dave Fridmann. And the Editors launch their new keyboard-driven sound with the piano lament “No Sound but the Wind,” a bit of Morrissey-lite for the masses.
There are some lowlights, of course. Start with Thom Yorke, who continues in the vein of The Eraser, stringing together computer beats and not much else on “Hearing Damage.” Lykke Li follows up with the impossibly boring “Possibility,” and the Killers finish up the job with the ridiculous “A White Demon Love Song.” Muse shortens and lessens the worst song on The Resistance, “I Belong to You,” for inclusion here, while Band of Skulls barely remembered to write a song at all with “Friends.”
But from the lineup to the song selection, this is an atypical soundtrack, and the New Moon team should be commended for that. It’s poised to be one of the most popular movies of the year, and like they did with Mutemath and Iron and Wine last time, they’ve used their platform to hopefully kick the door open for some very deserving artists. If the bit of Alexandre Desplat’s score included at the end here is any indication, New Moon is going to be a dark and wintry movie – much closer to the angsty and self-important feel of my teen years.
But oddly, while the new artists that make up the bulk of New Moon’s roster make me feel old, it’s a band from my teen years that lately has me dancing about the room, and feeling the glorious weight of untapped potential once again.
I had all but written off R.E.M. After the departure of drummer Bill Berry, they seemed to come unmoored, putting out three increasingly boring, synth-driven, forgettable records. The most indelible moment on 2004’s Around the Sun was a guest rap by Q-Tip. This was a problem, one the band didn’t seem too intent on solving – they released a middling live album to celebrate the Around the Sun tour, even though there seemed to be precious little worth celebrating.
I’m not sure how the band realized a retrenching was needed, but I’m sure glad they did. Last year’s Accelerate was the best, most alive album they’d made in more than a decade – stripped down to essentials, the trio (with de facto full-time drummer Bill Rieflin) ripped through 35 minutes of excellent (and excellently loud) new material, all of it vital and energetic. And now, they’re allowing you to peek behind the curtain, and hear the rebirth as it happened, with the release of Live at the Olympia.
This new 150-minute document was recorded at a series of open rehearsals in Dublin in 2007, before they jumped into the studio to record Accelerate. The idea was to run the new material by an audience before lavishing time and energy on it in the studio, but audiences there got the rare treat of seeing a long-running band rediscovering itself, and channeling that energy into new songs. In the early days, first and foremost, R.E.M. was a rock band, and by keeping things simple – a few organ splashes here and there, but mostly guitars, bass, drums and vocals – they ended up rocking out like the world hadn’t heard them do in ages.
It’s clear the band was taking inspiration from their earliest material when crafting the Accelerate tunes. Just look at the song selection on Live at the Olympia: they played almost all of their first EP, Chronic Town, and took on forgotten ‘80s classics like “Second Guessing” and “Disturbance at the Heron House.” They played “Sitting Still,” and “Feeling Gravitys Pull,” and “Auctioneer,” and “Little America,” and “Pretty Persuasion,” and “West of the Fields.” They even dug out “Romance,” which landed on a soundtrack in 1987 before surfacing on Eponymous. I mean, really. They played “Romance,” for pity’s sake.
At the other end of the spectrum is the new material, which simply kicks ass live. The show opens with “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” the rip-snorting clarion call that starts Accelerate, and the band tears through virtually all of the new songs, most of which had never been heard before. “Man-Sized Wreath” is wonderful, as is the stomping “Horse to Water,” and even slower songs like “Houston” and “Until the Day is Done” come alive on stage. There’s even a couple of previously unreleased songs, “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance” and the lovely “On the Fly,” which show just what a roll the band was on.
The show is rounded off with a few mid-sized hits, like “Driver 8” and “So. Central Rain,” which are, of course, splendid. Michael Stipe and company largely stay away from their most successful period, from Green to New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and surprisingly, they pump new blood into songs from Around the Sun and Reveal – “I’ve Been High” now stands as a pretty decent tune, as does “The Worst Joke Ever.” It’s amazing what a little youthful energy can do.
Let me put it this way. If you are mystified by the continued existence and popularity of R.E.M., if you can’t figure out why Rolling Stone once considered them the best rock band in America, if you just don’t know why so many people like them, pick this up. These 39 songs will give you everything you need. This is why, right here. Live at the Olympia finds the members of R.E.M., all of whom are orbiting 50 years old, sounding like young men again. And listening to it, I feel young myself, like the years behind have taken no toll at all. The road ahead is wide open, and anything can happen.
Next week, any of a number of things, from Transatlantic to Porcupine Tree to Joy Electric to Tegan and Sara to Switchfoot. And maybe even Tori Amos’ Christmas album, if I can bring myself to listen to it. Thanks for reading. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.