Weezer's arena songs fall short of those from the garage


May 6, 2005


Two songs into its 75-minute set at the Aragon on Wednesday, Weezer dusted off one of the most memorable tunes from its self-titled 1994 debut -- "the blue album," fans call it now -- recalling a time before the group hit it big at the height of the alternative era.

"In the garage/Where I belong/ No one hears me sing this song," bandleader Rivers Cuomo sang, evoking the days when he serenaded the lawn chairs in the family garage while dreaming of joining Kiss.

A sold-out crowd of 4,500 worshipful fans sang along with every word.

Unlike most of its peers, Weezer weathered the death of alternative rock in the late '90s by taking a sabbatical and disappearing from the music scene. During its absence, the lovably geeky California smart-pop band grew more popular than ever, and the members were greeted as conquering heroes when Weezer returned with its self-titled third release -- "the green album" -- in 2001. But the quartet had lost something along the way.

The genius of those "blue album" hits -- songs such as "Buddy Holly," "My Name Is Jonas" and "Say It Ain't So," which provided the highlights of Wednesday's set -- is that they are wonderfully odd, totally distinctive and thoroughly personal pop songs, full of unexpected twists and turns, but brimming with half a dozen hooks each. Thanks to saturation airplay by MTV (remember when it played music?) and modern-rock radio (remember when there really was such a thing?), these songs became accidental arena anthems, but they were never intended as such.

Since its return -- with new bassist Mikey Welsh joining Cuomo, drummer Patrick Wilson and second guitarist Brian Bell -- Weezer has increasingly written with the arena in mind, simplifying its song structures, dumbing down its lyrics and paring down the bounty of melodies to one big, repetitive hook per tune. "Hash Pipe," the signature hit from the green album, set the formula, and "Beverly Hills," the first single from the group's new disc "Make Believe," follows it, with diminishing results.

Arriving in stores on Tuesday, "Make Believe" isn't a bad album, it's just not a great one, and we have now been settling for Weezer giving us something less than its absolute best since the intensely personal "Pinkerton" in 1996. There was a noticeable sapping of energy at the Aragon every time Cuomo introduced one of the new songs, including tunes such as "Pardon Me," "Haunt You Every Day," "Hold Me" and "Peace."

It wasn't just the fact that fans are less familiar with these tunes. Like every other anticipated release these days, leaked copies of "Make Believe" have been available for download for weeks now, and few fan bases are more Internet-savvy than Weezer's.

The new songs were more rooted in '50s rock cliches and were much less innovative -- Bell moved to keyboards while a roadie came out to add second guitar for many of them, but that hardly qualified as a significant step forward -- but fans don't worry much about that sort of thing, either.

Ultimately, the flaw in Weezer's performance was that half the set simply wasn't as good as the other half. Judging by the number of tunes from the blue album and "Pinkerton" and the absence of anything at all from 2002's "Maladroit," Weezer is aware of this downward spiral, and one suspects that on its next album and tour cycle, there won't be nearly as many songs from "Make Believe." (Fans will have to endure the band hyping its new product for some time longer: The group returns to Chicago as a headliner at the revitalized Lollapalooza in July.)

Where can Weezer go from here if it wants to remain a vital and creative force and not just an aging alt-rock nostalgia act? The band should consider a return to that fabled garage -- or at least the attitude that prevailed there.

"In the garage/I feel safe/No one cares about my ways," Cuomo sang. If the group's driving force worried a little less about prompting cheers from the arena crowd and winning the love of the star-making machinery, Weezer might reclaim the glories it never anticipated winning in the first place.