Weezer – “Weezer”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “California Girls,” “Thank God For Girls”

No one really knows what goes on within Weezer. The bandmates who aren’t Rivers Cuomo might not even know what’s going on. But what went on, for many torturous years, was that Cuomo broke Weezer’s very easy-to-replicate formula. Their first four albums – “Weezer,” (Blue), “Pinkerton,” “Weezer,” (Green), and “Maladroit,” were all pretty similar works, even if the former two eclipse the latter two in terms of quality. And then, for whatever reason, the band released four mediocre-to-downright-unlistenable albums, in relatively quick succession. “Make Believe,” “Weezer” (Red), “Raditude” and “Hurley” all have individual songs that are worthwhile, but none were worth the wait. “Raditude” in particular showed the band giving in to their worst desires. 2014’s “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” was a shaky, tentative return to form that left listeners with their fingers crosses, hopeful for the future. And while their new, fourth self-titled album (White) isn’t a masterpiece or even one that really demands a second play, it is reminiscent of the Weezer past. So, it’s exactly what we’ve been asking for.

This has been billed as a concept album, with all ten tracks set during the summertime. I wouldn’t make the “concept album” distinction, however. Hits from their mediocre albums like “Memories” and “Beverly Hills” have been just as summer-y. Once Rivers Cuomo grew up, got that Harvard education and married that Japanese woman he questionably craved in “El Scorcho,” he couldn’t play the role of the nerdy underdog anymore. Whether something in Cuomo changed, or he was/is playing a character, Weezer’s lyrics switched from the very nerdy (“In the Garage”) to the very social (“We Are All on Drugs”). That change may have had an impact on the music, with the band only now relenting and reverting to their older, better style. Again, we can only speculate as to what goes on inside Weezer. But these are summer-y songs, because that’s what Weezer does now.

The average length of a radio single used to be 3:30, and I’m not sure if that still holds, but that seems to be something in the brains of the members. Seven of the album’s ten songs fall within the sex-second range of 3:24-3:30. These are songs built for the convention of pop radio, even if not the band’s focus. They’re fun, breezy, over as soon as they start. There’s not one but three songs with “Girl” in the title, as well as one with “Kids” and one “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori.”

As we’ve learned both the easy and hard ways, Weezer operate best when they’re repurposing older material and ideas. The riff and feel of “Beverly Hills” is essentially repurposed for the great opener “California Kids.” The summer-y lyrics throughout repurpose the best parts of their worse albums, as well as any mid-range Beach Boys. Their influence is felt on this album, even amidst the guitar fuzz. And the crunchy guitar is back to stay, apparently. It’s here throughout, pleasantly buoying Cuomo’s lyrics. There’s no songs that stand out from the crowd, Weezer aimed more for a complete package.

Cuomo’s lyrics might seem bland at first listen (and especially at first glance, with the aforementioned trio of “Girl” songs), but they’re packing some punches. Early single “Thank God For Girls” comes off as a little sexist until you investigate the playfulness of the verses. There’s the not-so-subtle line about a “big, fat cannoli,” and the ode to “strong” and “sweaty” women. I don’t think Cuomo is trying to rewrite “Lola” here, instead remarking on the state of gender roles and attraction. Whether it works or not is up to you (jury’s still out on my end). Elsewhere, there’s predictably weird references to Burt Bacharach, the Galapagos and Sisyphus, among others. All very heady and unexpected for a summer album.

It’s easy to criticize the frustrating lack of originality on this album, because you do come off wishing it had some more zings to it. But when they tried to add those zings, we criticized them more harshly. So, take the album for what it is. It isn’t a great Weezer album, but it is a very good one, and it’s the one we deserve. From the hip “California Kids” to the surprisingly forlorn ballad “Endless Bummer,” Weezer have provided a solid set of songs that could end up going down as one of their better collections. Soak it in, dudes.

-By Andrew McNally

No Noise – “Strange Times”

Grade: A-

Key Track: “People Downstairs”

The best attribute of young rock bands is usually their youthful energy; No Noise is no different. Coming from (possibly a garage in) Montclair, New Jersey, the five-piece alt-rock band is marked by their 90’s influenced, energetic alt-fuzz.

“Strange Times” is led through battle by singer Mika, whose vocals dominate the EP. She rarely flourishes, instead letting her strong vocals fit within the music. She owns tracks like “Blisters” and “People Downstairs.” She complements the band behind her, with an energy that lifts them past similar, settled bands.

The five-piece, which also consists of Sam and Alec on guitar, Max on bass and Joe on drums, are younger than this reviewer – significantly younger. This bleeds through onto “Strange Times,” which benefits from a general aversion to metrics and structure. The band does conform to relatively standard rock structures, but they have a loose, almost practiced-sloppiness to them. Intentional or not, they’re reminiscent of early ’90’s acts like Built to Spill or ‘Blue Album’ Weezer in their rehearsed garage feel. Equal parts grunge and surfer, No Noise are able to tone it down, like on the bluesier “Play Dumb,” and are more than capable of kicking it back up, like on “People Downstairs.”

Lyrically, No Noise seem to be pretty straightforward, sticking more to a rock structure than the music might. And that’s alright, because they fit within the context of the songs, and the focus is stronger on the music and vocals anyways. And when it all comes together, it’s largely successful. “Strange Times” is an EP that demands replays, and it gets better with each spin. Their influences may lie in the greats, and they’re picking and mixing the best parts of each. No Noise have an open road ahead of them, and “Strange Times” is just a revving of the engines.

Stream the album on Spotify or on their Bandcamp page.

If you like this, try: Pavement, at their more guitar-heavy times.

-By Andrew McNally

The Jazz June – “after the earthquake”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “over underground” “edge of space”

The dream of the 90’s is alive, and it’s a sad, forced dream. The Jazz June are back for their first album in 12 years, willfully back to participate in the emo movement that they helped spawn. Nothing has really changed in the interim – they’re still playing invitingly intimate songs with a half-forced energy that are equally ready for the radio and for the underground.

Most of the songs on the album deal, at least seemingly, with relationships and self-confusion. “stuck on repeat” has a repeated section of the line “I’m still trying to figure it out,” a line that lands harder coming from a band that’s been inactive for over a decade. The album is marked by lyrics that are somewhat vague but appropriate – “I still don’t know where you are” on “nothing to see here,” “You thought I was perfect / But you got it wrong” on “it came back.” “edge of space” is also pretty noteworthy, a track about Felix Baumgartner and the former astronaut who helped plan his famous dive. These somewhat muddy lyrics are more indicative of the 90’s emo scene that the Jazz June were heavily involved in, instead of the often hyper-specific lyrics of newer bands. And, it couples better with the equally muddy music.

The Jazz June, like many of their second wave-emo contemporaries, played relatively standard music. It’s distinguishably alternative, with an emo twist – think being influenced by early Weezer and actively trying not to sound like early Weezer. The downside is that some tracks don’t stand out. The upside is the ones that do really do. Opener “over underground” starts with a screeching guitar, sirening their return. And late album treasure “nothing to see here” has a big and unexpected guitar crunch in its chorus, one that helps to break up the album’s general midtempo nature. Otherwise, it’s pretty standard alternative fare – inoffensive, kind of inconsistent, but fitting.

To someone first coming into emo, being exposed to bands like, say, the Front Bottoms, or Glocca Morra or Radiator Hospital, the Jazz June might not make that much of a lasting impression at first. But their return is all about the melding of two eras – the Jazz June are back, Mineral are back, Braid are back. The Jazz June were and are a band’s band – though never famous, they’ve set the template for bands that have come since. The shoving out of third-wave emo and welcoming of fourth-wave has brought the once-young sad and melodic people of the 90’s out of hiding. The Jazz June are back, and hearing something so straightforward is really pretty refreshing.

The album comes out tomorrow, 11/11/14, on – where else – Topshelf Records.

If you like this, try: I just recommended this in a different review, but Prawn’s recent “Kingfisher” album speaks more of an older, bigger sound, than a newer, more condensed one.

-By Andrew McNally

Weezer – “Everything Will Be Alright in the End”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Ain’t Got Nobody” “Foolish Father”

Baby steps, people. Baby steps. It’s been a longtime since we’ve seen a Weezer we can trust, but we’re getting closer.

It’s no secret that Weezer fans, and fans of basic alternative radio, have suffered over the past decade. Since the excruciating “Make Believe” in 2005, Weezer has released a string of five largely terible albums. And most of them roped us in with great singles – 2005’s “Perfect Situation,” 2008’s “Pork and Beans,” 2009’s “If You’re Wondering If I Want You, I Want You To,” 2010’s “Memories.” But after a four year break (no, not some more undergrad studies), Weezer are back with an album that comes closer to revisiting their roots than they’ve seen in 12 years.

You may have heard leadoff single “Back to the Shack.” It’s honestly a pretty terrible song. Something about the weird hip-hop influence over the fuzz guitar doesn’t work, like something is just off. But the sentiment is there – an apology to fans and bandmates, from Rivers Cuomo, for years of music that didn’t sound like “My Name is Jonas” or “El Scorcho.” Indeed, Weezer go back to the basics on this album. It’s the closest thing to 90’s fuzz-rock we’ve gotten since 2002’s underappreciated “Maladroit.” And while it’s inconsistent and largely less than exciting, it’s still a nice refresh on a legacy that had become more asterisks than not.

The album deals with relationships – Cuomo’s relationships with others, women, and his father. They might be tried topics, but not for a band that’s trying to reclaim a lost sound. The last of those – Cuomo’s relationship with his father – comes through the strongest. The album’s last four tracks deal with it. “Foolish Father” is direct, but the last three songs – a trilogy – are not. “I. The Waste Land,” “II. Anonymous,” and “III. Return to Ithaka” close out the album on a big note, a booming finale of tracks that’s reminiscent of bands bigger than Weezer. Parts I and III are instrumental, but it doesn’t matter, because they hit a sound they’ve never really hit before.

Weezer also smartly give a nod to bands they’ve influenced. Bethany Cosentino, of Best Coast fame, sings on “Go Away.” And Patrick Stickles, frontman for (the best current American band) Titus Andronicus, contributes guitar on “Foolish Father.”

The 90’s garage-nerd fuzz comes back, finally, though it isn’t as strong as it used to be. This album is about on par with the Green Album – the kind of Weezer we like to hear, even if it isn’t their best work. Most of the songs aren’t that memorable, but it still makes for a good listen. Cars frontman and early Weezer producer Ric Ocasek seems to have roped the band back in, too, with his production sounding similar to the band in their heyday. It seems like we can finally say, “gone are the days of mediocre, scattershot Weezer.” “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” doesn’t have the standout songs that “Ratitude” or “the Red Album” have, but it instead offers more than just two good songs. Nearly every track on “Everything” is 90’s era garage-rock, and the only ones that aren’t are the mid-album slow jams. “Everything” isn’t going to go down among “the Blue Album” and “Pinkerton,” but it’s a serious step in the right direction, and it’s the album that we, or at least I, never thought I would hear Weezer put out anymore.

-By Andrew McNally

You Blew It! – “You Blue It”

Grade: A-

Key Track: “Surf Wax America”

The never-ending and ultimately inane debate about Weezer’s place in 90’s emo has been revived again, with Weezer’s influence on hybrid emo/pop-punk seen heavily in the past few years. So it only makes sense for a band like You Blew It! to do a series of Weezer covers. The band, right on the heels of their excellent sophomore album “Keep Doing What You’re Doing,” embody Weezer’s amped-up style of lovable-but-lonely fuzz-rock. The five songs they cover, all from Weezer’s legendary debut, are less covers and more progressions, showing how much Weezer really has influenced today’s emo.

The purpose of this EP wasn’t notoriety, the band stayed away from the Blue Album’s most recognizable songs – “Buddy Holly,” “Say It Ain’t So,” and “Undone” – in favor for some deeper cuts. “My Name is Jonas” and “Surf Wax America” are still recognized songs, but less so, and “In the Garage,” “Only In Dreams” and B-side “Susanne” are still somehow deep cuts. You Blew It! keep the songs mostly intact, preserving their integrity instead of flashing them up in any way.
“In the Garage” kicks the EP off, and it actually lacks the energy that the original boasts, as the band takes a more lackluster approach – either a reflection of emo’s slow draining of energy, or just a build up into the more accurate cover of “My Name is Jonas.” They keep the song almost as it is originally, as they probably should, adding only some reverb at the end.

“Only In Dreams” gets drastically shortened and moved to the midpoint, although it still serves as the longest song (as did the original version). “Surf Wax America” is probably the EP’s best song, with the band changing up the opening riff into a more emo-friendly rhythm before launching into a cover with just as much energy and guitar as the original. “Susanne,” meanwhile, is presented as a low-key acoustic track with a more lo-fi sound.

You Blew It!’s adherence to Weezer’s original, largely simple songs is reflective of a band honoring their influences instead of trying to overcome them. Weezer’s Blue Album has stood against time – we’re all still listening to it like it’s our first time. The Blue Album, whether Weezer was trying to or not, laid a template for pop-punk today, and You Blew It! is just the band to watch their throne. “You Blue It” is more about reflecting the progress of emo than it is about either band, showing how it’s evolved in form, and how it hasn’t really actually evolved at all. These are five reliable homages, as one band in their prime honors another from theirs.

-By Andrew McNally

Cheap Girls – “Famous Graves”

(Photo Credit: punknews)

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Slow Nod” “Knock Me Down”

As with any Cheap Girls’ record, the main fault of “Famous Graves” is also it’s biggest strength. The band has never, ever left it’s comfort zone, and have left their music in this frustrating void where the listener knows what to expect and is delighted with another similar record, until it inevitably becomes tedious by the halfway point. “Famous Graves” is no different. It starts strong, but it has a middle that sags from too many similar sounding songs.

Part of Cheap Girls’ original act was not to do anything revolutionary, merely to add their own spin onto fuzzy indie/pop-punk (think a more emotional version of Weezer’s Blue album). By sticking so closely to the formula, it reinforces their aim to make consistent and appealing music. But that works a little too well in their favor. “Slow Nod” opens the album, a typically high-volume, medium-speed song with plenty of fuzz and tough to interpret vocals. It’s the band’s staple sound, and songs like “Slow Nod” prove they can still do it well, and with plenty of energy.

The second track, “Short Cut Days,” has a catchy vocal rhythm and excels on a sound that’s intentionally condensed in the studio, with a garage feel – but also sounds like it could tear the walls down live. Cheap Girls, at their best, manage to make both sounds simultaneously. The album’s third song and lead single, “Knock Me Down,” is a more personal song about overwhelming pain felt after surgery, and combines strong vocals, strong lyrics and energetic music, the album’s best package.

After that, though, there’s a long string of songs that do nothing to differentiate themselves from each other. While they’re inherently enjoyable, they all follow the same formula. They’re almost all in the three-to-four minute range and they feel like time that’s being killed off until the album’s strong finale. Having weak and formulaic tracks is almost unavoidable, but five of the eleven songs feel like underdeveloped cuts they’re burning off. A bulk of the album, roughly half of it, falls victim to serious repetition.

The album does have a strong finale, though. “Thought Senseless” stretches (barely) over four minutes, and is a little more developed than a typical Cheap Girls song. “Turns” is a pseudo-ballad, one that has many of the characteristics of one, except that it isn’t a soft song, which makes for an interesting listen. And bonus track “7-8 Years” is more vocally forceful than any of the album’s other songs. The mix of acoustic and electric allow the vocals to come through more clearly, and it ends up adding an element to it.

At their core, Cheap Girls are an enjoyable band. They’re both incredibly simple and subtly complex. They’ve always blended fuzz and pop, in a 90’s throwback. Their sound translates well live, and their albums can accompany any real mood or season. “Famous Graves” just sounds too repetitive, and it could easily be shuffled in and lost amongst their past albums. Cheap Girls aren’t going to win any new fans over with this album, they’re just going to have a few more great songs for fans to eat up, and some more to pass on by.

-If you like this, try: Lemuria’s semi-classic 2008 album, “Get Better.” They have a constant sound much like Cheap Girls (and the two have recorded together).

-By Andrew McNally

Jimmy Eat World – “Damage”

Photo Credit: Antiquiet

Photo Credit: Antiquiet

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Byebyelove,” “You Were Good”

After some relative successes in the early- to mid-2000s, Jimmy Eat World have been quietly chugging along down the same relative path that led to fame in the first place. Kinda sad, kinda introspective, kinda inspirational, kinda pop, kinda punk alt-rock that is immediately listenable but never very interesting. “Damage,” their eighth album, is really no different. It’s more consistent and related than many of their previous albums, while also falling sometimes into forced or corny moments.

The members of Jimmy Eat World are approaching forty, and their inevitable disconnect from young crowds is becoming apparent. “Damage” tries, with moderate success, to be an ‘adult, break-up record.’ Lyrically, the album is among their stronger works. When it is effective, there are moments of Jim Adkins tearing away at the walls of youth hood. When it isn’t effective, the lyrics are cheesy bits of bad poetry. The album is pretty mix-and-match in this regard. It is consistent, at least, weaving through similar themes in many of the songs, definitely an intentional move.

The music of the album presents a problem, as the band has opted to largely keep the pop-punk sound of their previous albums, which does not successfully correlate with the themes they are attempting to highlight. It also means that many of the songs end up sounding too similar. The tempo is rarely a large difference from the previous track, and the volume almost never changes. This is expected of an album by a band like Jimmy Eat World, it just feels behind-the-times given the lyrical content.

The album’s two best tracks are actually the final two – the awfully-titled “Byebyelove” and “You Were Good.” The penultimate song is the only track on the album that has changes in volume, and has a certain intensity to it that is not achieved anywhere else on the record. “You Were Good” is a dramatic departure for the band, with a stripped-down, acoustic lo-fi sound, reminiscent of depressing folk singer-songwriters like Nick Drake. The change itself is so delightful and unexpected that I found myself caught up more in the realization than the actual song. “Damage” is definitely bolstered by it’s final two songs. Overall, it’s a decent record, one that is worth your time but not your memories. The band struggles to mature, but they’re trying.

If you like this, try: Weezer’s “Maladroit.” I personally think “Damage” will mirror “Maladroit” as an underrated entry in the given band’s canon.

-By Andrew McNally