We lost Hal Blaine this week.
Even if his name is unfamiliar, I guarantee you have heard Blaine’s work. As the drummer for the Wrecking Crew, a legendary group of Los Angeles-based session musicians, Blaine played on literally thousands of songs. He provided the backbeat on an astonishing 40 number one singles, including songs like “I Get Around” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Be My Baby” and “I Got You Babe” and “Mrs. Robinson” and “Monday, Monday” and “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” and on and on.
The songs, of course, are his legacy, as well as his ability to provide exactly what those songs needed. He’s not listed among the flashiest or most adored drummers of all time, but he was one of the first to make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and there’s a reason for that. A couple hundred reasons, in fact.
Blaine died Monday of natural causes at age 90. May he rest in peace.
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I know most people buy music online these days, but if you happen to see Weezer’s new self-titled album on CD or vinyl in an actual record shop, you’ll see it’s adorned with a sticker. And that sticker is adorned with a pull quote: “They’re doing some cool things right now,” credited to Todd, Weezer Ride or Die.
Who is Todd, you ask? He’s Matt Damon’s character in this absolutely hysterical Saturday Night Live sketch about the implacable divide between Weezer fans. I have probably watched this sketch 30 times, and the last time (a few minutes ago) was just as enjoyable as the first. It’s also given me a new shorthand for my thoughts on the band: I’m Team Damon. Which is a pretty lonely team, most of the time, since almost everyone I know is Team Jones.
If you don’t have time to click on the link, let me explain. The sketch accurately depicts the central argument between fans of this band. One faction – the larger, louder faction – believes Rivers Cuomo and his merry men made two classic albums at the start of their career and have produced nothing but garbage since. The other faction will defend almost everything the band has done. In my case, I’m willing to go to bat for every record except Make Believe and the Red Album, and I like parts of both of those.
I used to stake out some middle ground in this debate, suggesting that Weezer’s first two records – the Blue Album and Pinkerton– are wildly overrated, while their later work is wildly underrated. I still agree with this, but as the post-Pinkerton catalog continues to grow, I find it harder to consider that a middle-ground statement. Blue and Pinkerton are now looked upon as life-changing masterpieces of perfection, when they are manifestly not that. They are very good pop albums that have been elevated to godlike status for some reason.
And they’re no better or worse than a lot of what the band has done since. Suggesting that only Blue andPinkerton should count dismisses a dozen albums – a dozen! – as lacking any value. I see the issue as one of mischaracterization. Weezer has always, always been just a pop band making catchy pop songs (often with cringe-worthy lyrics), and fans on Team Jones believe they used to be something more than that. Somehow they listened to “Undone” and “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So” and heard the voice of a generation.
When really, it’s always just been the voice of Rivers Cuomo, and he has always just done what he wants. No two Weezer albums are alike, save for the abundance of catchy choruses on each of them. Lately, though, Cuomo has truly buckled down and delivered a series of records that stand tall with his best work. I’m willing to say the hot streak started with 2009’s Raditude, a knowing, winking collection of teen-pop anthems, but as that one’s a bit controversial, I’ll play it safe and say the renaissance began with 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End.
If you haven’t heard that one, you’re missing a classic, full of strong power-pop hooks and beautifully written songs like “Cleopatra” and “The British are Coming.” Since then, Rivers has delivered some superb work, from the sun-dappled Brian Wilson-isms of the White Album to the perfect pop of Pacific Daydream. I listened again recently, and I think Pacific Daydream is the most underrated Weezer record – its grand pop sheen gussies up some of Cuomo’s most hummable tunes.
And honestly, that’s all I want from Weezer – catchy, hummable tunes. Cuomo is a master of them, and each time out he gives me just what I want. The band’s latest self-titled effort, colloquially called the Black Album, is no exception. It’s one of the oddest records the band has created, thanks largely to producer Dave Sitek of TV On the Radio and to Cuomo’s adventurous spirit. But even with all the bells and whistles, it’s an album full of catchy, hummable tunes.
Naturally, the Team Jones-ers hate it. They were primed to hate it when the band surprise-released the Teal Album a couple weeks before, writing aghast think-pieces about the sheer audacity of a once-beloved-by-them band turning out covers of old radio hits because their fans on Twitter asked them to. I mean, the nerve, right? (I kinda love the Teal Album, especially the band’s takes on “No Scrubs” and “Billie Jean.”) But the actual Black Album itself didn’t help matters, as it’s about as far away, stylistically speaking, from the first two records as this band has ever journeyed.
If you’re expecting darkness from something called the Black Album, you’re gonna be disappointed. Rivers swears here, for the first time on record, but that’s about as dark as things get. Instead, he’s turned out ten fun tunes, adorned with computer-enhanced beats and synth horns and all sorts of other pop accoutrements. Opener “Can’t Knock the Hustle” is probably the record’s most intricate production, a tale of life on social media set to a danceable beat, a vaguely Mariachi feel, and a refrain of “hasta luego, adios.” By the end, I can’t help singing along.
I have the same trouble with “Zombie Bastards,” which starts out sounding like something Sugar Ray might have turned out, but ends up an infectious singalong. One read of this song is that it’s a smack-back at Team Jones, people who only want to hear the first two records, when Rivers is more interested in uncharted waters. “We know what you want,” he sings, before turning introspective in the bridge: “If I die it means that I lived my life, and that’s much better than hiding in a hole…” He follows it up with a classic: “High as a Kite” is a McCartney-esque ballad about leaving the pressures of life behind, and I think it’s one of Cuomo’s best songs.
It’s also the last bit of real emotion on the record, which I’m sure will annoy people looking for the next Pinkerton. The next five songs are all fun slices of electro-tinged power pop, from the super-danceable “Living in L.A.” (with its obvious Police tribute on the line “I’m so lonely”) to the dumb-clever “Piece of Cake” to the killer “Too Many Thoughts in My Head,” on which Cuomo rhymes “Mary Poppins” with “Netflix options.” “I’m Just Being Honest” is a good tune hampered by its lyrics, which depict Cuomo dissing a young band’s demo before uttering the title phrase, and I’m not sure what he’s getting at with his tribute to the Purple One, “The Prince Who Wanted Everything.” But the latter song’s glam-rock riffs are convincingly crunchy.
The last two songs are surely destined to drive Team Jones nuts. “Byzantine” is a folksy wisp of a thing, co-written with Laura Jane Grace of Against Me, and its bongos-in-a-box beat and goofy melody find Cuomo jumping from Brian Wilson to Mike Love. (Repeat listens have elevated this one in my mind, I must say.) And closer “California Snow” is kind of… Drake, maybe? It’s the most hip-hop song here, Rivers half-rapping lines like “This is the definition of flow” before launching into (you guessed it) another super-catchy chorus. It’s the least convincing thing here, and I still like it.
The Black Album is weird, certainly, but Cuomo’s penchant for well-crafted, memorable tunes keeps all of his (and Sitek’s) experimentation grounded. His mission statement is the same as it’s always been: here are ten more songs you will get stuck in your head. That is all he’s trying to do, whatever form his songs take. Purists and Team Jones-ers will balk at the pop sounds here, and at Rivers’ attempts at sounding hard. (His “don’t step to me, bitch” on “Hustle” is just funny.) But those of us on Team Damon, who approach each new Weezer album with an open mind, will find a lot to like here. The Black Album is fun and catchy, and if that’s all you want from Weezer – and it should be – you’ll enjoy it.
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Next week, the extraordinary Amanda Palmer. Also looking forward to writing about Foals, Jonathan Coulton and a few others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.