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Coveting Cuomo
On Make Believe, Rivers reaches out beyond Weezer’s core audience

Weezer have almost everything to do with why I care about indie rock. And I don’t imagine I’m alone in this sentiment. There must be a whole segment of my twentysomething peers who feel the same way — kids from the suburbs too demure to dig metal, too fat for grunge to fit, and too parentally advised to buy Wu-Tang on the sneak.

Weezer were never indie in label or even ethos, and hindsight cynicism screams that these lovably ironic punk-pop geeks were just Geffen’s programmed lower-fidelity alternative to the heavier acts dominating the early ’90s. Who knows? In any case, we freaks and geeks abused the band’s horn-rim demeanor to geek it up all the more. We heralded the shy band’s relative simplicity, and we celebrated frontman Rivers Cuomo’s cleverness and sincerity, the more so when we found out he was studying at Harvard. As we began to establish a system of musical values, we looked for Cuomo in other artists, following the scent into a rich ’90s Amerindie scene that would soundtrack our teens and first-everythings. (I also think it’s safe to say the song "Buddy Holly" is the only reason many people my age know who Holly is.)

The band’s 2001 homonymous CD, a/k/a "The Green Album," and 2002’s Maladroit didn’t elicit the same mystical response as their debut or its proto-emo follow-up, 1996’s cult hit Pinkerton. By 2001, though, who really cared? We had found our Pavements and Jesus Lizards and Brainiacs; many of us had ventured into more experimental terrain. Some of us played catch-up and gave dance and pop and mainstream hip-hop a chance. And after what we’d heard of Cuomo’s played-up personal trauma, I for one was more than willing to grant Weezer their duds — the least I could do for those guys. Maybe that’s asinine of me, but I didn’t have much invested in the band by then — I was happy to think of them as the good and sometimes great major-label act who’d led me toward more exciting music below the radar.

Which is why I have to ask: who are all you out there in the wake of Weezer’s fifth studio release, Make Believe, listening for the cock’s third crow and poised to slag Rivers Iscariot for betraying you? "The songs are boring," people say. "The lyrics are way retarded. I heard he’s just trying to write songs using math equations he ran looking for patterns in popular alt-rock songs." Come on: have Weezer really changed their act that much since 1994? Maybe it’s just you?

As music, the songs on the Rick Rubin–produced Make Believe could pass for any of the band’s "Blue" or "Green Album" material. (The cover shot even makes it look as if Make Believe were meant to be "The Black Album.") The exception is the trendy Cars rip "This Is Such a Pity," a modest acknowledgment of new wave’s recent mainstream revival (and perhaps a nod in the direction of Ric Ocasek, who produced both "Green" and "Blue"). Which is to say, if the songs here sound boring, unsurprising, and way too Dashboard Confessional to you, well, go back to the rest of Weezer’s discography — even those albums you loved — and you may be surprised to hear how boring, unsurprising, and overly confessional they were too.

If Cuomo is doing anything different here, it would seem to involve zeroing in on what made his best songs great, cutting the slack, and keeping outright duds to a minimum. "The Damage in Your Heart" recalls the progression of Pinkerton’s "Pink Triangle." "My Best Friend" has a few "Taxman" moments. And the shout-along lead single "Beverly Hills" sticks to one of rock’s most primal and efficient riffs, the 1-4-5 (think Joan Jett’s "Rock And Roll").

People love familiarity dressed up as something new, and Cuomo knows it. He writes songs that want to be loved, and whether the foundation is tradition or mathematics, he’s always aimed for instant and maximum pleasure, which means taking minimum risk and relying on proven tricks. He seems convinced that there exists a set of magical riffs that guarantee satisfaction, no matter how many times you’ve heard them before. Tales of his mammoth songwriting output have become legendary over the years — it’s an article of faith that he’s worked hard to pare away distracting details until he uncovers the essential hook of a song. In that sense, Make Believe is an outright triumph: the melodies are bold and the chintzy harmonies are kept to an all-time low.

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Issue Date: May 20 - 26, 2005
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