Sunday, May 15, 2005

74. Weezer - Make Believe (2005)

It's not easy to admit that one of your favorite artists has made a bad album. Initially your hopes are so high, they will buoy you up for awhile. When you start to sink, you try to stay afloat by telling yourself that the album is one of those that takes time to reveal its charms, that in a few months you'll love it. But when that doesn't happen, you realize that you've been deep-sixed.

This was my experience with Weezer's last album, 2002's Maladroit. After releasing two stone-cold classics and one solid power-pop gem maybe the law of averages doomed the band to a let-down. Maladroit was unfocused and uninspired, musically and lyrically.

Thankfully,on Make Believe everything feels fresh again. There are several factors that might have contributed to this, but I've boiled it down to two main reasons:

1) It was produced by Rick Rubin. Can I just take a couple of moments to marvel at this guy's output? Consider that he has produced great work from LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, RUN D.M.C., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Jay-Z, and Public Enemy. Word has it that he has recently worked with both Neil Diamond and Dixie Chicks. To put it simply, he's gonna be a legend someday.

2) The lyrics actually say something. Both 2001's green album and Maladroit suffered from generic lyrics. Unlike the latter, the former benefited from a fast pace and producer Ric Ocasek's melodic sheen. Though Make Believe's songs still come off a bit on the non-specific side, they at least convey genuine feeling.

The album kicks off with Beverly Hills, fueled by handclaps and wah wah guitar solos. The album's review in Entertainment Weekly said the band was too old to take on easy targets, but to me it doesn't sound ironic when lead singer / songwriter Rivers Cuomo sings "my automobile is a piece of crap / my fashion sense is a little wack." Instead the song fits in the outsider mentality that Cuomo's fostered on Weezer's first two albums. It's a song about wishing to belong, and it seems oddly sincere.

The other obvious single, We Are All On Drugs, could also suffer if viewed ironically. To me, it seems to be simplistic social commentary. At any rate, you're not likely to hear the song in ads for Alavert or Advil or Paxil or Viagra.

I guess the reason I'm willing to take these songs at face value is the complete honesty that permeates the rest of the album. As Cuomo himself says on My Best Friend, "I speak sincerely." That song may or may not be about masturbation, but elswhere on the album Cuomo twice admits he's "insane" and also owns up to being selfish and mean and shy. Thankfully, he's looking for forgiveness (Pardon Me, which may be for his beleaguered bandmates), peace (Peace), and comfort (Hold Me).

My two favorite songs are Damage In Your Heart and This Is Such A Pity. Both songs mourn failed relationships. The former, with its harmonies and power chords, could have slotted easily on the green album. This Is Such A Pity sounds so much like The Cars it's amazing that Ric Ocasek (who produced Weezer's two self-titled albums) didn't have a hand in its creation. It's all skipping guitar, chugging bass and synth flourishes. Cuomo lowers his voice a couple of registers and there's even an Elliot Easton-esque solo. The Killers would die for this song.

Somewhat like their fellow geeky Star Wars fans, it's probably time for Weezer fans to admit their beloved artist will likely never again reach the heights of their early work. But there's also reason to hope. On Make Believe the melodies and perfomances are tight and focused and the sequencing is nearly perfect. That's enough for me. And, had any of the twelve tracks on this album appeared on Maladroit it would have easily been the standout. I can admit that now.

Grade: B
Fave Song: This Is Such A Pity

Sunday, May 08, 2005

73. Ben Folds - Songs For Silverman (2005)

What would all the Billy Joel fans do without Ben Folds? Aside from wearing out our copies of 52nd Street and The Stranger, we'd be completely bereft of piano-based pop storytelling.

Songs For Silverman is the official follow-up to 2001's Rockin' The Suburbs. In the 4 year interim Folds has kept busy with live album, a series of EPs, and collaborations (William Shatner, The Bens). Those projects were mildly satisfying, but I'm guessing this is what most of us were waiting for.

Folds' musical act has always been one of balancing the silly and the sublime. Even in the Ben Folds Five days straightforward ballads coexisted with irony-and-expletive-laden outbursts. I've always been a fan of the former more than the latter, and thankfully, SFS is ballad-heavy. You could call it maturity, or you could just call it keeping the tone consistent. Without exception, the 11 songs are built with the trademark Folds sound, lots of percussive piano, great melodies, and generous harmonies.

Bastard is a questionable choice for opener. It's not the immediate knockout punch you expect from a first song, and it's not easy to figure out. By turns the song appears to speak to an old man who's past his prime, and a young man who will become that old man some day. Both are very clever, but have trouble admitting fault. Best line: "They get nostalgic about the last ten years / Before the last ten years have passed." I Love the '00s anyone?

You To Thank is the first of many songs (see also: Landed, Trusted, Give Judy My Notice, and Time) that reference failed / failing relationships. I read somewhere that Folds has been married three or four times, so we know he has a lot of material to work from. This song is about a doomed wedding, and Folds shows off a startling ability to say a lot with very few lines: "As they danced and drank / We jumped off the deep end."

Jesusland is an ode to Bush's second term America. Fittingly, the tone is not angry. Instead, it's sad and resigned. I know that's how a lot of us have felt since last November. When Folds sings, "You hang your head and pray for Jesusland," it makes me think about how Bush and his cronies have even co-opted religion.

Landed, the first single, is an instant classic. It has a piano tone that instantly brings to mind Elton John in his '70s heyday.

I keep thinking of Gracie as a companion piece to Rockin' The Suburbs' Still Fighting It. That song was from Folds to his son. This one is about his daughter. As I've written before, creating songs about children is generally a bad idea. This one manages to walk the razor thin line between sweet and too sweet, and just barely manages not to fall into the river of chocolate.

Give Judy My Notice first appeared on the Speed Graphic EP. I liked it okay there, but it's my favorite song here. Why? Who'd have thought that some added background vocals and a pedal steel could improve a song so dramatically?! This song is a perfect kiss-off to a relationship. The best line: "Tears fall / But that don't mean nothing at all / It's just 'cause I said it first / Yeah, that's why it hurts ya."

Late is a mostly unsentimental, yet completely affecting, tribute to the late Elliot Smith. Instead of the usual words we say when someone dies too early, Folds mirrors his experience as a touring musician with Smith's. He uses the song to speak directly to Smith: "The songs you wrote / Got me through a lot / Just wanna tell you that." When I saw Folds perform at First Avenue a couple of years ago he covered a Smith song, so this just makes complete sense to me.

Sentimental Guy could be heard as another paean to an old romance, but I imagine that its about Folds' father. It also seems to go well with Bastard. Musically it sounds like Randy Newman jamming with the Beach Boys.

Time marks the serious musical debut of Al Yankovic (sans the "Weird"). He contributes very effective background vocals to another regretful hymn. What are the odds on Folds' producing Yankovic's first grownup album? If it worked for William Shatner...

The album ends with Prison Food, which is quite lyrically mysterious and quite musically Vince Guaraldi-esque.

Overall, this is a stellar effort. Rarely would I care enough to write about every single song, but this feels like an album that will be special to me for a long time. Maybe not as special as An Innocent Man, but that would be a near-impossible feat. Let's just hope Folds never decides to give up pop music for classical composing.

Grade: A
Fave Song: Give Judy My Notice