The Good, The Bad and the Glorious, In That Order
New Ones From Sloan, Weezer and Aimee Mann

I mentioned my longtime friend Chris L’Etoile here last week, but I feel the need to bring him up again, since he’s the reason I’m a Sloan fan. I have no idea how Chris first heard “Underwhelmed,” Sloan’s first single from 1992. I do know it was the standout track on one of the many mix tapes he made me.

(And I mean mix tapes, not mix CDs – this was back in the dark ages, when you’d have to spend three or four hours planning, recording and editing a mix tape. You had to do it real-time, song by song, and it actually took some math, because you had to plan out the exact length of the mix beforehand to make sure it fit on the tape. I vividly remember that sinking feeling when the tape you were recording onto would run out 30 seconds from the end of the last song, meaning you’d have to go back and remove a song, re-editing the whole mix from that point forward. Kids these days have it so easy…)

“Underwhelmed” was, in a word, awesome. A snarky three-chord clever-o-rama, the song was about a guy who loves a girl, but can’t stop correcting her grammar. How could you not love a song with a line like this: “She wrote out a story about her life, I think it included something about me, I’m not sure about that but I’m sure of one thing: her spelling’s atrocious.” Sloan’s debut album, Smeared, never reached those heights again, but it was nerdy-cool when nerdy-cool was in. If they’d just stayed on that path, they’d have been million-sellers by 1995.

Instead, they quickly embraced 1960s and 1970s rock, becoming this completely different, yet dramatically better band. And unlike most of their early ‘90s contemporaries, they’ve stuck around – they’re one of the most popular bands in their native Canada, despite playing a style of music that gets you relegated to the indie-pop ghetto here (Lenny Kravitz notwithstanding). For years I’ve had this theory that Sloan has a time machine – when they need to release an album, they pop back to 1971 and find one nobody’s ever heard, bring it forward, slap their name on it, and voila. Vintage-sounding pop-rock.

But that wouldn’t account for the band’s secret weapon, the musical personalities of the four members. Sloan is the music world’s best argument for democracy – all four members write and sing their own songs, usually in equal measure, so you get the pseudo-cock-rock of guitarist Patrick Pentland and the complex punk of drummer Andrew Scott next to the soaring pop of other guitarist Jay Ferguson and the emotional balladry of bassist Chris Murphy. The four contributions are all so vital that the one album on which Scott didn’t write anything, 2003’s Action Pact, sounds like it’s trying to drive on three wheels.

That diversity fueled last year’s amazing Never Hear the End of It, a 30-song, 77-minute seamless suite of tunes that played like the White Album without the filler tracks. It was the kind of one-hit-after-another magnum opus many pop bands would kill to be able to produce, and it left only one question – how do they follow it up?

Well, here’s how: Parallel Play, Sloan’s ninth album, is less a follow-up than a companion piece. It’s a 37-minute slab of the same stuff, although a bit lesser – it sounds like it was made up of the songs that didn’t make the cut on Never Hear. That’s not to say it’s a bad record, of course, but it is smaller and packs less of a punch. The four Sloaners are all in good form, however, and even a middling Sloan album is better than most of what you’ll find on the radio.

Parallel Play was named after a child psychology term for children who play alongside one another, but not together. It’s a clever way of explaining just how the band operates these days – they basically make solo EPs and combine them into a Sloan album during the mixing process. But you’d never know it, since the sound is so consistent. The album crashes to life with Pentland’s pure ‘70s “Believe in Me,” then glides into Ferguson’s sweet “Cheap Champagne” and Murphy’s eminently singable “All I Am is All You’re Not” before exploding with Scott’s minute-long rave-up “Emergency 911.”

And on it goes like that, one song bleeding into the next like parts of a whole. Ferguson’s “Witch’s Wand” floats on delicious high harmonies before Scott’s “The Dogs” wallows in the muck for five minutes. Pentland sounds like he’s on autopilot with “The Other Side,” a lazy cowbell lope, but the tempo picks back up for Scott’s Bob Dylan pastiche “Down in the Basement.” And Murphy hits a home run in the late innings with “I’m Not a Kid Anymore,” which includes some of his cleverest lines: “I relied heavily on Styx and Stones, not so much Styx once I heard the Ramones…”

Still, when Parallel Play ends (with Scott’s anti-war anthem “Too Many”), you’re left with more of a shrug than a satisfied smile. It’s good, but it’s nothing special – it’s just another Sloan album, better than some and not as good as others. I’m actually surprised how few of these songs leave me humming them afterwards. Never Hear the End of It, for all its excesses, earned every second of its running time, where the comparatively tiny Parallel Play drags in places. This is a B-minus Sloan album, but it’s still a solid effort from a band too few in this country have discovered. I probably wouldn’t recommend this as your first Sloan purchase, but like everything they’ve done, it’s worth hearing.

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Ah, Weezer. I don’t even know where to start anymore.

I’ve never been one of those who idolizes Rivers Cuomo and his band. I like the first two albums well enough, especially the self-titled debut (known as the Blue Album). The early stuff is loud, catchy, nerdy pop with an undercurrent of endearing self-doubt, and Pinkerton, the much-lauded second record, stands as this nakedly emotional island in the Weezer catalog, and deserves praise just for that.

Since then, it’s been like riding down a river of crap. The second self-titled record (called the Green Album) was pretty much perfect, for what it was – a 28-minute chunk of emotionally distant pop-punk. But it’s been a sad downward spiral since then, with 2005’s Make Believe the apparent nadir. There were a few songs worth hearing on that one, but mostly, it was overproduced, underwritten, trite bullshit.

But man, Make Believe sounds like Revolver when placed next to the Red Album, Weezer’s just-released third self-titled record. This one is very, very bad. This one goes beyond bad, actually, to this whole different universe of horrible. It’s like Cuomo took the reviews of Make Believe as a challenge – “You think that was bad? We can be so much worse. Watch this.” And then he opened this space-time rift, this hole in the world, and brought through this unholy, steaming, ludicrous, stunningly shitty music, music so bad that it bespeaks of a darker, more infernal influence than Cuomo could have devised on his own. This is music to commit mass suicide to.

And you know what? It’s the most fun I’ve had listening to a Weezer album in years.

Cuomo and his cohorts have been on a course towards awful for this entire decade now, but this is the album where they burst past awful and into so-awful-it’s-awesome territory. It’s like the audio equivalent of Mystery Science Theater 3000, something so entertainingly crappy that it has to be a joke. I don’t know how else to explain it. In retrospect, though, Make Believe was just too tentative – it was like Cuomo timidly exploring bad music, tossing out a “Beverly Hills” while countering it with a “Perfect Situation.” Here, it’s like the band committed themselves fully to making the worst music they possibly could. They cannonballed into the pool of crap.

Weezer opens with “Troublemaker,” one of the deliberately-crafted “hits” here. It’s two chords, two minutes, and full of stupid lyrics. I’m of the school that believes “Buddy Holly” was clever-silly, where this is just dumb-fuck hideous. “I’m growing out my hair, I’m movin’ out to Cherokee, I’m gonna be a rock star and you will go to bed with me, ‘cause I can’t work a job like any other slob, punching in and punching out and sucking up to Bob…” This has nothing on “Pork and Beans,” the lousy first single, which references Timbaland and spends three minutes establishing that Cuomo doesn’t “give a hoot what you think.” (Which, of course, means he does give a hoot what you think. He very much gives a hoot.)

Sandwiched in between these crapfests is the best Weezer song ever. It’s called “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” it’s six minutes long, and it sounds like Freddie Mercury visited the studio to lend a hand. It’s insanely over the top – it’s all based on this old shaker hymn, and it opens with delicate piano, only to be smashed by sirens and horrid white-boy rap. But the song shifts every few seconds, from pop-punk to acoustic interludes to spoken word sections to choral arrangements. It’s nuts, and it will have you laughing out loud, especially the bit where Cuomo speaks the following: “And if you don’t like it, you can shove it, but you don’t like it, you love it.”

“Heart Songs” is a sweet acoustic piece utterly destroyed by its lyrics, which list off in excruciating detail all of the songs Cuomo loved growing up. He doesn’t pass over Iron Maiden, Slayer, Rob Base and the Fresh Prince – they’re all there, all taken seriously. “Everybody Get Dangerous” is just as stupid as it sounds, if not more so, its half-rap beat the showcase for more brain-dead sung-spoken lyrics.

And “Dreamin’” may take the ridiculous cake. It’s another multi-part epic, but this one drifts off into insipid hippie-tripe early on and never comes back. Imagine a round-robin vocal chorale singing the following over lightly-strummed acoustics: “There are bluebirds in the meadows and the bees are flying around, and the goslings at the river at a loss so far from the ground…” It’s like a third grade class project: “Let’s go outside and write a poem about what we see!” It’s jaw-droppingly terrible.

And then, for three tracks in a row, Cuomo gives up the mic to his bandmates, one at a time, to sing their own songs. This stretch is almost intolerable – without Cuomo’s outsize personality, Weezer just sounds like any other band. Brian Bell comes off best with his Uncle Kracker impression “Thought I Knew,” and if you take a moment and realize that I just called an Uncle Kracker impression the best thing about these three songs, then you’ll have some idea how bad they are. Weezer sputters to a close with “The Angel and the One,” a six-minute forlorn-love dirge that almost redeems things, but just can’t.

Many have said that Cuomo’s crippling self-doubt has been holding Weezer back – he was wounded by the reviews of Pinkerton, and never fully recovered. But on the Red Album, he sounds almost stupidly confident in his own work, taking a thousand risks a minute and falling on his face each time. This album isn’t the work of a timid artist. This is the work of a guy who believes he’s a genius, because everyone has told him so for years, and when he steps up to the plate, all smirk and swagger, he strikes out on three pitches. It’s even worse, though, because Cuomo apparently thinks he’s hit a grand slam here, winning the game in the bottom of the ninth. This kind of delusion is just laughable, as is this new album.

But Weezer leaves me in a conundrum. This record is like the Feces Park roller coaster – it’s terrible, but because it’s so terrible, it’s so much fun. A few years ago, I wanted Cuomo to go away and stop tainting his legacy. It’s too late for that now – play the Blue Album and the Red Album back to back, and it’s like listening to before and after pictures of a stroke victim. But oddly, I want him to stick around now. I’m fascinated to see if the next Weezer album can possibly be worse than this one. Has Weezer bottomed out, or are there depths yet to plumb? I’m perversely fascinated to find out.

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I really should be getting on Aimee Mann’s case more.

I mean, I’m always calling other artists out for not changing things up enough. Though there are cosmetic differences from LP to LP, essentially, Aimee Mann has been plying the same trade for more than 20 years. She specializes in pretty, sad, traditionally-structured pop songs about loners and losers, and you always know what you’re going to get when you pick up an Aimee Mann record.

I’m not sure why, but that’s fine with me. You can call it preferential treatment if you like, but I think Mann is one of the finest songwriters in the world, and as far as I’m concerned, she can keep on writing and playing these songs until she dies, or I do. I wanted to be clear about this up front, because I’ve already heard that some people are disappointed in her new album – it’s the same as all the others, they’re saying, and to me, that’s not a bad thing. Would I like to hear her stretch out and try new things? Sure. Can I chastise her for filling her new album with 13 brilliantly-crafted sad-sack lullabies once again? No way.

So here is how @#%&*! Smilers, Mann’s wittily-titled sixth album, differs from her other five. Where her last one, the amazing The Forgotten Arm, took on a raw, live, loose feel, this one is meticulous, yet still warmer than Lost in Space. There are no electric guitars at all on this record – where they would be are waves and waves of sound, from synthesizers and strings and horns. Yet for all of that, the sound is often like thin glass, ready to break at any time. There’s a carnival feel to a couple of these songs, and a streetcorner reverie feel to a few others. But mostly, this is a series of lovely ballads about losing hope.

Here is how it’s the same – the songs are wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. Smilers opens with one of its weakest, “Freeway,” and even that one will stick in your head, with its memorable hook line: “You’ve got a lot of money but you can’t afford the freeway.” If you’re looking for a moment when this album takes off and doesn’t come back down, it’s “Phoenix,” a traditional Aimee Mann slow dance that revolves around the line, “You love me like a dollar bill, you roll me up and trade me in…”

“Borrowing Time” is great, a shuffle with a call-and-response chorus and a plastic synth line. Those synths come back on “31 Today,” one of my favorites – it’s the saddest song about growing older I’ve heard in years. The verses describe a series of wasted days and fumbling encounters, and the chorus drives it home: “I thought my life would be different somehow, I thought my life would be better by now, but it’s not and I don’t know where to turn…”

You may have surmised that very little light creeps into the corners of a Mann album, and you’re right. “Columbus Avenue” is an extended portrait of failure with a great string line, and “Medicine Wheel” is another in a long line of wonderfully crafted breakup songs. That one, in fact, is like nothing Mann has done – it’s a full-on Dusty Springfield-style piano ballad with sumptuous horns. As good as that is, the album’s masterpiece is “Little Tornado,” a spiderweb-thin acoustic piece about hoping for release. The repeated “Oh no, no we don’t, no we don’t know” is the most heartbreaking thing here, and that’s saying something.

Smilers ends with “Ballantines,” a brief theatrical number with duet vocals by San Francisco songwriter Sean Hayes. It’s nice, but it plays like closing credits music instead of a finale – I think Mann missed a trick by not closing with “It’s Over,” a gorgeous orchestral ballad trapped at track six. But that minor quibble aside, Smilers is another terrific – nay, glorious album from Aimee Mann. Every year she releases an album, I set aside a spot on the top 10 list for her. That spot is then hers to lose, and so far, she’s never lost one. Smilers is bleak and beautiful, and one of the best records of the year.

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Next week, a Britpop spectacular with Coldplay, Supergrass and the Hoosiers.

See you in line Tuesday morning.