Cruel Country


Album: Cruel Country

Artist: Wilco

Released: May 27th, 2022

Highlights: I Am My Mother, Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull, Tired of Taking It Out on You, Hearts Hard to Find, A Lifetime to Find

Although they arguably reached their artistic peak while operating within the indie and alternative scenes, the country rock label was always attached to Wilco. It made sense. For starters, the band’s frontman, Jeff Tweedy, initially emerged as one of the leaders of alternative country group Uncle Tupelo; therefore, a lot of Wilco’s early work – particularly their first two albums – exhibited traits of the genre, as if their key songwriter was progressively working his way through shedding the skin he had accumulated in the beginning of his career. Meanwhile, down the line, as Wilco grew slightly freakier and notably more experimental, the country qualification remained even if not much of the style could still be clearly identified in the band’s sound; this persistence might be harder to explain, but it can be attributed to numerous reasons: the popularity of Wilco’s early material, the fact none of their alternative generational peers came as close to the acoustic tonality of the genre, and the generally downcast demeanor Tweedy often showed during the group’s indie incarnation.

Yet, even though country was always there in some form or intensity, the bottom line is that Wilco never truly embraced the genre, at least not through the course of an entire album. Their first two records carried way too many radio-friendly electric anthems to qualify, and the works that followed may have had plenty of contemplative acoustic music, but they usually received a rather weird treatment before being committed to tape. That reality, however, changed with “Cruel Country”, because in their twelfth release, the members of Wilco – as stated by none other than Jeff Tweedy – throw themselves into country music without much reservation.

Based on the length of “Cruel Country”, one has to assume that either the band was very enthusiastic about that perspective or Tweedy happened to have a lot of unreleased country songs stashed away in his closet, because the album clocks in at nearly eighty minutes and contains twenty-one tracks. From the start, it is reasonable to see those numbers as problems; after all, rock history has shown repeatedly that long records are only able not to sink under their own weight if they check one of two boxes: variation or message. “London Calling” and “Exile on Main St.”, for instance, thrive because of the former; “Quadrophenia” succeeds due to the latter; and “The Suburbs” showcases both traits. “Cruel Country”, though, does not have these qualities.

In style, the songs merge into one another, since most of them are short acoustic tracks with delicate electric or piano ornaments; and over this instrumentation, Tweedy steadily sings in the sullen whispery mood he has uniformly adopted during the last decade or so. In message, meanwhile, “Cruel Country” does not really have a powerful overarching theme. Before the album’s release, Tweedy spoke of how the record was an examination of the beauty and ugliness that the United States was capable of producing; and country does indeed come off as the appropriate genre for that confrontation because while there is a lot of beauty in it, the style also has an intimate relation to regions of the country where ugly political ideas have the most traction. This interesting contrast, though, does not materialize lyrically to a very notable degree, because even if it is alluded to in the title track as well in a few others, the truth is the tunes that make up “Cruel Country” are mostly concerned with general sadness and relationship trouble.

The combination of these absences could spell disaster for the album, but surprisingly it does not. Surely, there will be listeners who will come away from “Cruel Country” thinking its songs are too similar and that the monotony of its mood mixed with its length turn the work into a nice substitute for sleeping pills. It might not be the fairest assessment, especially since “Cruel Country” is one of those albums that need to be given plenty of time for the music to sink in and the hooks to start emerging from the thick persistent fog; however, it is a reasoning that can be understood: perhaps a little more variety could have helped, maybe a stronger editing process could have made the record’s qualities be more evident, and there is a chance Tweedy could have elevated a few of these tunes by trying not to sound hopeless through an entire track. Nevertheless, the fact remains that “Cruel Country” might be the most enjoyable Wilco album in a long while.

Just like Big Thief had done it in February with their equally countrified and long “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You”, Wilco prove that sometimes lengthy albums can throw variation and message out the window to succeed via sheer songwriting power. Although they may take time to emerge, mostly because Tweedy does not wrap his voice around them too strongly, the melodies are notable throughout the record, regardless of whether they come to the forefront in choruses of sweeping sadness or in quiet verses whose nice little variations can pass by unnoticed. When it comes to lyrics, even if Tweedy is moving through places and themes that are very recurring to him and his audience, the words tend to not only land well, but also show that indie gloom goes rather nicely with a country tinge.

Moreover, despite not being stylistically varied, “Cruel Country” does a good job stretching its muscles in the tight realm it operates. Cuts with a full-band setup contrast with songs carried solely by Tweedy’s voice and his acoustic strumming. The slide guitar goes from evoking contemplative sadness in some tunes to ushering a borderline happy country fair flavor in others. And Wilco does not miss the chance to throw some of their alternative flair into these mostly rural proceedings. Although these odd turns are overall not very frequent, there are a couple of songs with extended instrumental codas, there are a few tunes that have unexpected variations in structure in spite of their brief nature, and there are tracks where traditional country instrumentation takes a back seat to Wilco’s more sparse ambiance, with drums, punctual guitars, keyboards, and other effects filling up the space.

“Cruel Country” may fail to reach the target Tweedy set for it, because not much in its constitution materializes as a trip through the beauty and ugliness of the rural United States. However, as a journey into country music by a band that had long been associated with the genre while never fully dabbling in it, the album is a success. Obviously, as an indication the group could have dug a little deeper, the material would have benefited from a thematic approach a bit more distant from the Wilco standard or from a higher degree of variation in mood. But it is safe to say most who spend a good amount of time with “Cruel Country” will be happy the band finally embraced their country roots in a nigh unadulterated state. And there is a good chance those fans will appreciate the fact that instead of a normally sized package of forty minutes, Wilco has delivered a whopping eighty minutes of good music.




Album: Moondance

Artist: Van Morrison

Released: January 27th, 1970

Highlights: And It Stoned Me, Caravan, Into the Mystic, Brand New Day

In the case of most versatile songwriters, it takes a little while for them to show the different styles they can produce with their pen, which makes the whole process of change feel like natural artistic evolution rather than inherent eclecticism. Bob Dylan did not go from folk troubadour to electric beatnik poet in a day; Nick Cave’s transition from hellish gospel to heavenly balladry took more than half a decade; and Tom Waits spent quite a few years as the drunkard who plays sad songs for lonely souls at the local piano bar before becoming the circus leader of a haunted carnival of freaks, degenerates, and outcasts. In Van Morrison’s case, however, that versatility came more quickly, as each one of his first three works reveals a slightly distinct facet of his craft.

His awkwardly titled debut, “Blowing Your Mind!”, still carried the smell of blues and rock, especially in the long-winded highlight of “T.B. Sheets”; and these elements were undoubtedly linked to the fact Van had just left behind his Belfast band, Them. The follow-up, “Astral Weeks”, was folk rock that stretched its muscles via free-flowing jazz influences, as most of the songs crossed the five-minute threshold by engaging in organic emotional and philosophical journeys that made Van look like a man who decided to tape his search for musical catharsis or spiritual revelation. “Moondance”, meanwhile, abandons the pretensions that elevated its predecessor to the masterpiece status to show that the man from Northern Ireland could pull off radio-friendly soft rock.

Whether calculated or not, the move was understandable. “Blowing Your Mind!” had achieved success via the single “Brown Eyed Girl”, but it had hardly left a mark as a complete work. Meanwhile, “Astral Weeks”, as mighty and revered as it may be, looked like commercial suicide by an artist that was far from being established, since the meandering character of its tunes – be them long or brief – meant they were about the trip instead of the destination; as such, they did not produce any hook that was significant or immediate enough to make the album catch the ears of the general public. In that sense, it is easy to look at “Moondance” as some sort of compromise; a time when Van gave in to external forces because he felt this was a pivotal moment in his career: either he could commercially deliver in his promise as an artist or he would likely not get any other opportunities.

Yet, it is not all that simple. In a sense, “Moondance” could be compared to what Joni Mitchell would pull off four years later in “Court and Spark”. After all, both albums display very artistic and idiosyncratic songwriters that had previously challenged musical conventions presenting a work that, superficially, could feel excessively conformist. As usual, though, the devil is in the details, and like it would happen in “Court and Spark”, the greatness of “Moondance” is evident to anyone listening to it, but the elements that make it stand out in the midst of a flood of radio-friendly soft rock released during the 1970s – which is a fad that it partially helped create – are so sneaky that some who come into contact with the record might not even notice it to the point they are able to articulate it in words.

For starters, however, it is important to address the obvious: “Moondance” is beloved because it is an astonishing collection of great songs. If it were not so quaint, it could be one of those classic albums in rock history that could deceive listeners into thinking they bought a collection of greatest hits. Through the record’s thirty-eight minutes and ten tracks, Van Morrison simply does not miss, delivering a sequence of great choruses, an abundance of marvelous hooks, and a trove of emotionally meaningful moments that are catapulted to the sky thanks to beautiful arrangements as well as great performances by both Van and his band. The album’s soft nature means it never engages listeners too directly, but pretty much all of its tracks quietly envelop one’s brain until they begin to unconsciously sing along to the endless amount of verses that seem to have been built for that very purpose.

But the ultimate secret of “Moondance” is that, in a way, it does not completely abandon the spirit of “Astral Weeks”. In lyrics, Van once again emerges as a man who likes to write about moments of delight; those little simple events, often missed by most, that are capable of elevating the human soul to some sort of higher ground. And again, he finds these gateways to transcendence in nature (“And It Stoned Me”), music (“Caravan”), and love (“Into the Mystic”). He seems to be out in a search for borderline miraculous occurrences, and the songs lyrically and musically somehow capture this particular state of mind. Unlike it happened in “Astral Weeks”, Van will not take listeners on a seven-minute emotional journey about the beautiful girl he used to see walking down Cyprus Avenue as a teen. Instead, “Moondance” feels like an abbreviated version of that quest, either because it has learned a shorter path to delight or because it opted to focus on the transcendence that follows the long meditation.

What matters is that this approach brings a great degree of spontaneity to these concise tracks, and its success in “Moondance” makes it unsurprising this unchained impulse would become a concept that is intimately tied to Morrison as an artist. This freedom is everywhere here, albeit in a more restrained mode than in “Astral Weeks”. In the title song, where the record embraces jazz, there is a prevalent feeling of improvisation, especially in the walking bass line and in the woodwinds. In “Caravan”, the start-and-stop chorus seems to show Van testing his band, because the hook that signals the movement is used irregularly through the track to great effect. The transition between verse and chorus in “Into the Mystic” is so seamless it comes off like an organic transformation done on the spot. “Come Running” is the kind of joyful free-flowing southern shuffle that could have been executed by The Allman Brothers Band. “These Dreams of You” is loose and very well-played acoustic blues. “Brand New Day” has Van trading lines with his female backing singers in its cathartic chorus. “Everyone” has a hook so simple it appears to be ad-libbed. And the lalalalas of “Glad Tidings”, which also show up in “Caravan”, have got to be a spontaneous product of sheer happiness.

Immersed in this feel-good environment, “Moondance” absolutely grooves, because – as it has often been the case in his career – Van Morrison anchors his folk softness in the rhythm of the black music he admired, especially R&B, jazz, and soul. Therefore, both the album’s light and more energetic moments gain very tasteful power. Horns bring an extra dose of spiritual elevation to the chorus of the acoustic ballad “It Stoned Me”, the soul backing singers add beauty to the fragile whispered infatuation of “Crazy Love” as well as to the nigh gospel revelation of “Brand New Day”, and the thick rhythm section causes the title track, “Come Running”, and “These Dreams of You” to swing. Surrounded by these sounds, captured by its infinite hooks, and stunned by its marvelous songwriting, “Moondance” becomes impossible to resist. And perhaps that was Van Morrison’s plan all along, because by condensing the soul-searching without abandoning his identity, the invitation of “Astral Weeks” turns almost into an intimation for us to see life through his eyes. Consequently, “Moondance” is nothing short of revelatory.


Icky Thump


Album: Icky Thump

Artist: The White Stripes

Released: June 19th, 2007

Highlights: Icky Thump, You Don’t Know What Love Is, 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues, Rag and Bone

Although creativity is often associated with absolute freedom of expression and the power to explore a boundless artistic expanse, there are times when establishing apparently suffocating constraints on the whole creative process can lead artists to impressive breakthroughs, as they are forced to work with a limited set of tools. For example, take the case of Jack and Meg, of The White Stripes. Setting out from Detroit in 1997, the pair wanted to play blues rock as a way to pay homage to the black musicians deeply admired by guitarist and vocalist Jack White. Although the style was far from being in vogue during that decade, the proposition by itself was not exactly original as by that point rock history had registered plenty of instances when white suburban kids from the United States or from across the Atlantic modernized blues so effectively that they made a fortune out of the venture. Jack and Meg, however, had a slightly different plan, as they opted to tackle that style with nothing but a guitar and drums.

To say that the approach worked would be an understatement: that limited setup made the duo birth a type of blues rock that was punk in its raw delivery, visceral in its no-frills presentation, and accessible thanks to Jack’s ability to write snappy pop melodies to go along with the raucous noise. Moreover, with the recording of four excellent albums in which the band progressively matured that sound whilst sticking to the same radical constraints, they were able to become critical darlings and a considerable commercial force. And it was not until their fifth record, “Get Behind Me Satan”, when Jack and Meg gave themselves the chance to move out of their guitar-and-drums configuration to go for a type of music that while still rooted in traditional American sounds and exhibiting garage ethos, allowed itself to get a bit weirder and stylistically varied.

“Icky Thump”, which closes The White Stripes’ discography and follows the unexpected sounds of “Get Behind Me Satan”, can – especially in the wake of its predecessor – be considered a return to the group’s roots after a short one-album detour. Where “Get Behind Me Satan” had a bunch of piano-centered tracks, not to mention the somewhat sinister marimba-led trip of “The Nurse” as well as the mandolin-based ditty of “Little Ghost”, “Icky Thump” mostly rids itself of stylistic oddities and posits that Jack and Meg still had something of value to extract out of a guitar and a drum-kit. Given the strictness of the setup and the fact that by that point they had already created nearly four hours of good music using it, one would not be considered crazy for betting against the band’s success in that endeavor. “Icky Thump”, though, beats the odds and shows The White Stripes could still break into new ground with their rudimentary approach.

Although labeling “Icky Thump” as a back-to-basics work is not incorrect, the version of The White Stripes seen here is not the same one that had appeared on the 2003 masterpiece “Elephant”. If that were the case, the “Get Behind Me Satan” journey would not have taught Jack and Meg anything worthy; worse yet, because of that, “Icky Thump” would have merely come off as a step back, something that is not very interesting from an artistic standpoint. Thankfully, none of those statements are true, and the reason “Icky Thump” is a meaningful trip to a not-so-distant past, rather than a dull retread, is exactly due to how, here, The White Stripes emerge once more like a garage blues rock duo, but – this time around – they are a band that is not afraid to add some layers and complexity to their primeval racket.

Examples that reveal such characteristic abound throughout “Icky Thump”, but three of its first four songs send that message with a particular clarity. The opening title track is based on a threatening pounding and culminates on an iconic riff that works as a wordless chorus; it is a formula that is not too distant from the one used on the classic “Seven Nation Army”, but the tune has various unpredictable instrumental breaks, including one where Jack improvises on a keyboard, that lend the song a quirky epic structure that suits the strange tale it tells. Clocking in at an unprecedented, for the group, five minutes and a half, “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” is equally filled with brief instrumental breaks, but most of its uniqueness comes from the fact it pulls a new trick in The White Stripes’ catalog, featuring bluesy acoustic verses that are interrupted by guitar freak-outs that make it seem the band is in the middle of the titular storm. Finally, the much briefer “Conquest”, which cleverly compares romantic pursuit to bullfighting, materializes its theme in music by bringing in a Spanish-flavored horn section.

If stripped to their essence, none of these compositions would have felt out of place in a record like “White Blood Cells”, as they display dirty straightforward playing laced with quirky jabs. As such, what fans get out of “Icky Thump” still has a blatant The White Stripes signature all over it. However, the elements that ornate these tracks and their wilder structures could have only been made by the group that went through “Get Behind Me Satan”, as here the duo often disrespects their unwritten guitar-and-drums rule and threatens to sound like an actual full band. And this attitude is nearly omnipresent in “Icky Thump”. It appears in the keyboards that soften “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to the point it becomes the track in the entirety of the band’s discography that comes the closest to being a bona fide – and excellently written – pop rock song. It can be seen in the mandolins and pipes that deliver a Scottish folk flavor to “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn”. And it is vivid in the pair of “I’m Slowly Turning into You” and “A Martyr for My Love for You”, respectively a bitter attack and a ballad, which have their drama accentuated via keyboards.

Of course, being a The White Stripes’ work, “Icky Thump” inevitably embraces the band’s traditions and boasts a light-hearted (and absolutely brilliant) acoustic closer, “Effect and Cause”, as well as a handful of tunes where Jack and Meg – in full attack mode – are left alone with their signature instruments; and out of that bunch, a couple of career highlights emerge in the utterly menacing “Little Cream Soda” and in the theatrical “Rag and Bone”, where the duo exchanges words in the role of junk dealers who try to convince listeners to give them their stuff while rocking proud and loudly. However, even in those more orthodox instances, the band still sounds fuller – albeit thankfully not overproduced to dullness – and the tunes come off as more full-fledged than usual.

“Icky Thump” may not be a peak for The White Stripes, as differently from the band’s trio of best records, the album has a few minor issues: “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn” and “I’m Slowly Turning into You”, which are instrumentally solid, can verge on annoying due to how Jack sings them on an uncomfortable high pitch; “St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)” is an experiment that could have been cut; at last, the rocking “Bone Broke” and “Catch Hell Blues” are good but lack a defining trait. Yet, it is truly hard to find a band that waved goodbye to the world as stylishly as The White Stripes did in “Icky Thump”; and more impressive than that is how the record goes back to basics while proving the pair still had plenty to say within that limited style, showing that the guitar-and-drums constraint the pair imposed on themselves early on worked greatly to their benefit until the very end.


Hallowed Ground


Album: Hallowed Ground

Artist: Violent Femmes

Released: May 14th, 1984

Highlights: Country Death Song, Never Tell, Jesus Walking on the Water, Hallowed Ground

It is always particularly tricky to firmly single out the point when any musical genre came to existence; after all, like it happens in any art form, rather than occurring in a very defined moment, artistic revolutions unfold little by little, with a myriad of previous rhythms and influences slowly being aggregated and transformed into something that is entirely new. Yet, when the Violent Femmes burst into the scene in 1983, carried by a self-titled debut record that would go on to become a cult classic, they did so on a musical mixture that was pretty unique; to the point it would not be wrong to claim they invented it. Led by Gordon Gano, the trio from Milwaukee landed on a genre that was labeled as folk punk, and although that is a name that might bring images of an acoustic troubadour suddenly electrifying their compositions to tackle some balls-to-the-wall rock and roll (much like Bob Dylan did in 1965, only wilder and with some Iggy Pop thrown into the mix), the whole shtick pulled off by the Violent Femmes was quite different.

Gano and his crew did not use electricity, meaning that the folk portion of the genre attributed to them came from the prominent use of a good old acoustic guitar, the instrument around which absolutely all of their tunes were built. The punk half of the equation, then, was left to be mustered by the two other main variables found in the formula of a rock band: composition and performance. Therefore, it was with the use of that pair that the Violent Femmes birthed a thirty-six-minute showcase of how a good deal of reckless abandon, youthful hormones, angry energy, and sharp concise writing could make an acoustic setup be as punk as a The Clash concert or a trip to CBGB in the mid-70s.

If every true punk rocker needs some sort of fire to be burning inside them, then anyone listening to the Violent Femmes’ debut would quickly conclude that, in Gano’s case, the origin of that flame was none other than adolescent sexual desire. While numerous are the bands that have been started and instruments that have been picked up with the goal of hitting it off with a bunch of girls, the Violent Femmes – in that very first album – seemed to be a megaphone for Gano to vent about his frustrations with the opposite sex, be it his heartbreaks, his unstoppable lust for pretty much any female he came into contact with in high school, or his failed attempts to fulfill his desires. It is material that can be horrifyingly embarrassing, sure, but it is music so simple, so irresistibly catchy, so stupidly fun, and so honest that not singing along to it is almost impossible, even if it is with some tongue-in-cheek thrown into the mix.

Imagine the shock, then, when the horny and somewhat light-hearted group from 1983 decided to, in the next year, start singing about Jesus and follow up their successful first effort with a weird and dark work that owes far more to gospel, country, and Gothic music than to folk or punk. That is what “Hallowed Ground” represents, and although the turn is rather abrupt, Gano has downplayed such transformation, claiming that the songs present here were written and ready to go at about the same time as those of the debut and that, in the end, the band had to choose whether they would begin their discography with the catchy acoustic tracks or the disturbing religion-soaked tunes. Given the difference between the two parts, it is a statement that might be hard to believe, but the truth is that the jovial Violent Femmes of the past can still be perceived in “Hallowed Ground”.

No, listeners will not catch Gano crying over a girl who ignores him here; they are far more likely to hear him refer to a bunch of biblical passages. Yet, these are songs certainly written by the same guy who penned “Violent Femmes”. The jittery melodies and quirky vocal hooks, out of which the Pixies would go on to build a career later on, are still present and they tower over the proceedings, turning these mostly gospel tunes into a strange sort of bubblegum rock. Moreover, especially when the album gets to songs that gravitate around acoustic instrumentation, the unique punk demeanor of its predecessor comes to the surface, because although here the unplugged guitar is usually accompanied by extra elements (like a marimba in “I Hear the Rain” and a whole country outfit in “Jesus Walking on the Water”), there is a recklessness to the performances that subconsciously ties “Hallowed Ground” to the debut.

In fact, stemming from that nature is another piece of the puzzle that allows the Violent Femmes to be far from unrecognizable in this second effort, and that would be how it is incredibly hard to tell if Gano is serious or not about his chosen subject. It is not just the inherent abandon of the band that leads to that question; the silly melodies, the exaggerated feelings exposed in the lyrics, and the wacky singing all contribute to that doubt. As such, if in the self-titled album all of those elements caused the Violent Femmes to come off with a veneer of parody and humor as they exposed their sexual woes, in “Hallowed Ground” it can be hard to tell if the religious undertones of the record are meant to be taken with a straight face, which creates an ambiguity that makes the weirdness all the more appealing. Truth be told, Gano himself has said he had a Christian upbringing and that the biblical nods as well as allusions to Jesus, God, and the Holy Ghost are serious. Yet, even armed with that information, a listener can be doubtful because “Hallowed Ground” is simply – and charmingly – very ambivalent.

Nonetheless, as much as it may still hold ties to the band’s past, “Hallowed Ground” undeniably breaks into new ground in multiple ways. The country-flavored acoustic epic tale of “Country Death Song” could, instrumentally, be in the debut, but both its length and its dark five-minute story – which is grounded on the tragedies often tackled by traditional folk music – would make it out of place in that record. Meanwhile, the electric quartet of “Never Tell”, “I Know It’s True but I’m Sorry to Say”, “Hallowed Ground”, and “Black Girls” is even wilder. The first is a Gothic seven-minute multi-phased tune, with a cathartic guitar solo included, that encompasses within it an overwhelming amount of darkness. The second is a gentle gospel ballad that could be sung in a church without many lyrical alterations. The third goes back to sinister Gothic terrain, albeit with a leaner structure. And the fourth, which has some questionable lyrics, is a wild guitar-and-brass jam filled with improvisational goodness.

Due to what came before it, it is awfully hard to judge who exactly “Hallowed Ground” was meant to appeal to. The hormone-filled teenagers that sang along to the Violent Femmes’ first record and probably related to the feelings exposed within it were possibly shocked that their favorite horny songwriter had suddenly decided to write about religion. Simultaneously, the crowd who enjoys gospel music is likely to seek artists that do not make it so dark and that are able to write it in a way that makes their devotion blatant rather than questionable. Yet, strange niche audiences do exist, and for those whose ears are open to the odd overlap between punk performance, folk instrumentation, country tinge, Gothic darkness, and religious imagery, “Hallowed Ground” should be a weird delight, because young Gordon Gano sure knew how to write a great hook, and in the Violent Femmes’ second effort they are as abundant as they were in the band’s debut, even if – here – they are dressed in much stranger colors.


The Mollusk


Album: The Mollusk

Artist: Ween

Released: June 24th, 1997

Highlights: Mutilated Lips, The Blarney Stone, Buckingham Green, Ocean Man

Whenever an outrageously idiosyncratic band signs a deal with a major label, there is always – understandably – some concern among fans that the pressures that come with a contract of the kind will harm creativity freedom. Take the case of Ween, for example. Before signing up with Elektra Records in the early 90s, the duo formed by Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo had spent over five years working independently and cultivating quite a reputation with amateurishly recorded lo-fi tracks that jumped between countless genres and boasted lyrics drowning in juvenile jokes. Out of that phase, the pair was able to squeeze not only a vast collection of cassette tapes but also two full-length releases – “GodWeenSatan: The Oneness” and “The Pod” – that together carried more than two hours of material that was absurdly noisy, highly experimental, unbelievably eclectic, positively crude in humor, and occasionally quite catchy to boot. Yet, as unlikely as it may be, and probably because of that last characteristic, by 1992 Freeman and Melchiondo were dragged into the bowels of the music business.

Their first two albums as part of the ruling system, though, showcased Freeman and Melchiondo had opted to be a nuisance from within rather than a cog in the machine, since “Pure Guava” as well as “Chocolate and Cheese” were – like their predecessors – works so big they felt unedited, so varied they could come off as unfocused, so abrasive they were bound to please only established fans, and so thematically ridiculous an unaware listener would probably conclude the lyrics were written by high school students. As such, at least during that period, Ween fans could safely sleep in the knowledge that the wackiness of their favorite music maniacs had not been tamed by the powers that be; and it is precisely at that point that “The Mollusk” comes in.

Released in 1997, “The Mollusk” sees Ween putting together, for the first time ever, a work that falls into the definition of what the boring general public perceives as an album. Obviously, that does not mean its predecessors were not proper records; they were, when it is all said and done, sequences of songs published under a name and with beautiful cover art. But thanks to their length, variety, and noise, they were more likely to be seen by most human ears as wild experiments in madness to see what sticks to the wall than as calculated efforts that are intended to deliver some sort of message. “The Mollusk”, on the other hand, is notably well-behaved: it clocks in at only slightly over forty minutes, it is almost devoid of lo-fi aesthetic, and – more shocking than everything else – a good look at what is sung in it reveals it might even have a degree of thematic cohesion. In other words, “The Mollusk” is Ween sitting down and making a normal album.

It is possible to say that before “The Mollusk” Freeman and Melchiondo had already done something of the sort. After all, one year earlier, the pair had gone down to Nashville, gathered a bunch of experienced musicians, and released “12 Golden Country Greats”: a concise trip through all corners of the titular genre that does not leave the duo’s signature humor out of the equation. However, given that project’s focus on a singular style, the Ween stamp it carries is a bit faded, as if it were a little detour on the journey rather than an actual stop. “The Mollusk”, on the contrary, has the band’s fingertips all over it because despite its cleaner production and controlled size, it is a wild journey through a kaleidoscope of genres, which is what one expects out of Ween.

Truthfully, when compared to works like “The Pod” and “Pure Guava”, the genre exploration conducted by “The Mollusk” is not so significant. For starters, the record does not have enough room to be so wild since it only has fourteen songs whereas its older brothers either approach or break the twenty-track threshold. Secondly, as revealed by its title and cover, “The Mollusk” has a notable lean towards maritime music and sounds that nod to the ocean, which narrows its boundaries considerably. Yet, inside them, the record has quite a ball, going through an old-timey vaudevillian ditty (“I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight”), a drunken pirate song akin to Tom Waits’ carnival period (“The Blarney Stone”), a slice of medieval balladry (“Cold Blows the Wind”), an art pop exercise on imitating Peter Gabriel (“Buckingham Green”), and an irresistible gem that either single-handedly inaugurates the underwater folk genre or at least marks its peak (“Ocean Man”).

The king of the proceedings, though, is undoubtedly psychedelic pop. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Ween decided to go so strongly in that direction, but the fact is that the genre benefits the record in at least three visible ways. The first is that it opens the door to a myriad of sonic oddities that lend “The Mollusk” the necessary quirkiness that fans want from Ween; the best example of that result is in the hilarious effects thrown into the vocals of “Mutilated Lips”, which is a fantastic and trippy pop song. The second is that it equally unlocks production trickery that helps the album attain its aquatic soundscape, like the keyboards that imitate woodwinds in the title track, the unsteady wave-like rhythms of “Polka Dot Tail”, and the lush ambiance on the obscenely silky-smooth pop of “It’s Gonna Be (Alright)”. Finally, betting on a genre that is – at its best – cleverly melodic and technically skillful plays right into the hands of the band’s greatest abilities.

Although humor and eclecticism tend to be the terms most closely associated with Ween, they had always been a group that thrived on melody and on technical prowess, especially the one exhibited by Melchiondo with a guitar in his hands. Nevertheless, in most of the material that preceded “The Mollusk”, songs in which these two variables met were not so easily found because one had to sift through a good deal of wildness to locate cuts that went for one without leaving the other behind. In “The Mollusk”, however, the balance between technical goodness and melodic excellence is the norm, and guided by the light of catchy and musically rich psychedelic pop, Ween delivers an absolute barrage of great tracks that are memorable from a singalong standpoint as well as from an instrumental perspective; the solo in “Buckingham Green”, for example, should be mentioned in any list that attempts to rank epic guitar moments.

Of course, this being a Ween album, there are still a few moments when Freeman and Melchiondo go a bit too far into the joke and hit bum notes: opener “I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight” lacks creative spark, “I’ll Be Your Jonny on the Spot” nods to their noisy lo-fi origins without leaving much of a mark, and instrumental “Pink Eye (On My Leg)” is a bit dull. However, by any standards, “The Mollusk” is a major musical victory. It proved Ween could find a balance between their impetus for wild experimentation and the focus usually required to produce a solid album, and it manages to hit that target perfectly without relinquishing any type of audience they may have. Fans will still find humor, eclecticism, and eccentricity; while outsiders will encounter a tuneful work filled with catchy and fun tracks. As it is the pattern for Ween, “The Mollusk” is dubious enough to leave one guessing whether the duo is tackling these genres out of love or out of mockery; what is not questionable, however, is the caliber of its songwriting genius and the joy that can be found in this pleasantly watery collection of tunes.


Blue Weekend


Album: Blue Weekend

Artist: Wolf Alice

Released: June 4th, 2021

Highlights: Delicious Things, Lipstick on the Glass, Play the Greatest Hits, The Last Man on Earth

While the indie class of the 2000s was interested in either reviving garage rock ethos or exploring the value of bombastic compositions, that of the 2010s had its eyes firmly set on the introspection of dream pop. Be it innocently playful or overwhelmingly depressive, the independent scene – the apparent final bastion of rock music – spent most of that decade producing artists who loved gentle guitars, whispery vocals, as well as intimate songwriting. At times, that inspiration veered towards an earthly folk sound, giving birth to more organic acts like Big Thief and Phoebe Bridgers; on other occasions, though, the tunes floated straight to the ethereal realm inaugurated by the Cocteau Twins, and drifting in the vastness of that space one could find bands such as The xx and Daughter.

Coming from London and putting out their full-length debut right in the middle of the dreamy 2010s, Wolf Alice certainly belongs to that second group. Yes, singer and guitarist Ellie Rowsell may have started the act as an acoustic duo, but proving that in the minds of her generation folk music is not too distant from dream pop, the project began gaining members and shape until it slowly transitioned into a more ethereal atmosphere by the time of “Blush”, their 2013 EP. Yet, even then, there clear signs Wolf Alice was looking to explore far more than the gloomy quietness that their indie peers were keen on tackling; Ellie and the boys also wanted a piece of the furious guitar walls frequently exhibited by My Bloody Valentine, and they were more than willing to pack the two dream pop factions into the same work.

There is plenty of criticism that can be directed at “Blue Weekend”, the band’s third album. For starters, from a purely artistic standpoint, it showcases no significant evolution in relation to its predecessors; starting with “Blush”, Wolf Alice was quick to announce what they wanted and, eight years later, they are still doing it, because although “Blue Weekend” has the dream pop calmness often seen in the indies of the 2010s, it also contains an untamed guitar fury that is usually forgotten by members of that scene. Moreover, a complaint can also be aimed at the excessively derivative nature of the band’s music, which by closely embracing the shoegaze movement in its two key facets – the noisy loudness of My Bloody Valentine and the reverb-laden melodic beauty of Slowdive – ends up not finding the same level of originality encountered by other bands that are part of its class.

Certainly, there is truth to these points. However, they are not strong enough to disqualify “Blue Weekend”. Stylistically, it might not be very different from the two records that came before it, but it is not totally stale because it brings the Wolf Alice sound to its peak. And sure, the transformation it applies to its inspirations might not be enough to let the band claim the music as its own; this is by no means comparable to what fellow indies The White Stripes did when they brought blues to the garage or, to pick a more contemporary example, to what Phoebe Bridgers executes when she uses her love for Elliott Smith to bring singer-songwriter folk sadness to a new generation. Still, ultimately, all music is derivative in one way or another, and even if Wolf Alice might cross the line that makes one say similarities are just too big to ignore, it is undeniable that the emulation that they perform is not just well done, but also without parallel in the scene in which they were born.

Nevertheless, if a listener wants to look past the fact “Blue Weekend” is an excellent recreation of the sound of major shoegaze acts and visualize other qualities, they will most likely be able to do so. The first greatly positive trait is how the album blatantly pulls from a myriad of influences and consolidates those sources under the same cohesive musical umbrella. The muffled guitar of opener “The Beach” coupled with a melody that slowly gains steam makes it seem that, like a tune from a 2000s indie band that dabbles in bombast, such as Arcade Fire, the track will eventually explode into catharsis. The waves of reverb-infused guitars in “Delicious Things” recall Slowdive. The high-pitched vocals of “Lipstick on the Glass” and the track’s floaty aura nod to the Cocteau Twins. “Smile” has verses with so much nasty noise that it flirts with industrial music. “Safe from Heartbreak” has a heavy reliance on acoustic picking, which makes it the album’s most obviously folky moment. “How Can I Make It Ok?” toys with the electronic influences of shoegaze. And any time the guitars kick into overdrive to construct impenetrable walls of distortion, it is impossible not to think of My Bloody Valentine or Ride.

The second major strength of “Blue Weekend” is simply how melodically gorgeous it is. Always keen on building moving soundscapes, the dream pop genre has always heavily relied on channeling beauty through ethereal instrumentation and vocal work, and when it comes to the latter, Ellie Rowsell undoubtedly delivers. This is not the type of shoegaze which tries to hide uninspired melodies behind astounding walls of sound. That description may apply to “Feeling Myself”, which is the sole point of the album where the vocals meander; however, everywhere else, whether she is betting on full-fledged choruses (“Delicious Things”), recurring phrases that serve as hooks (“How Can I Make It Ok?”), or a more free-flowing structure that slowly rises to splendor (“The Last Man on Earth”), Ellie is constantly enchanting.

More than summoning beauty like never before, “Blue Weekend” also sees Wolf Alice take its other major facet (the noise-making) to its most fully realized state. Given at least half of the tracks eventually launch into guitar cacophony, examples of the proficiency with which the band rocks out are abundant, but the finest and most definitive one is unquestionably “Play the Greatest Hits”. Following a pattern established on the previous two albums, the track plays the role of the only cut in the work where the group goes loud and fast from the beginning to the end; and breaking the tradition, rather than being the dullest moment on the record, it is actually a strong contender for being the best one. Ellie’s voice still breaks into a somewhat silly childish wail when she chooses to scream, but the tune’s hook is so massive and the noise is so fierce that the punk attitude that seemed unauthentic in songs of the type in the past comes off as absolutely genuine.

“Blue Weekend” may not be revolutionary and it may emulate its sources with a proximity that is too close for comfort. Nonetheless, its power and quality are simply undeniable. From the get go, Wolf Alice always stood out among a sea of bands made up of dream pop fans on account of its choice to aim for shoegaze grandeur instead of going for quiet introspection with modern flavors. It was a move that worked well to isolate the group, but it was also a choice that led them to imitate sounds that had already been explored thoroughly in the early 1990s, making the whole experiment come with a large question mark attached to its value. With “Blue Weekend”, though, these doubts and questions can be put aside, because, sure, the album does not push the genre to new places; however, it shows Wolf Alice can put out a work that is a worthy addition to the hall of great shoegaze records.


Van Weezer


Album: Van Weezer

Artist: Weezer

Released: May 7th, 2021

Highlights: Hero, The End of the Game, I Need Some of That, Sheila Can Do It

In a career that has spanned over twenty-five years and produced more than a dozen albums, there is one specific criticism that has constantly followed Weezer wherever the band has gone: the fact that their leader and songwriter, Rivers Cuomo, has frequently fallen victim to his uncontrollable corniness. With the exception of the band’s debut, the classic “Blue Album”, there is not a single record in the group’s whole discography that can escape such comments. Most of the time, the fair complaints have stemmed from Rivers’ inability to stop himself from sounding absurdly melodramatic as well as from his apparently non-existent capacity to approach his feelings with maturity. However, negative remarks of the sort have also been caused by the band’s numerous failed attempts to come off as hip, modern, and cool, which have all gone as spectacularly as one would expect given they were executed by an extremely geeky group of guys.

With that in mind, the choice to give their fifteenth album the ridiculous name of “Van Weezer” is absolutely genius. In a way, it is yet another unbelievably corny move: after all, not only are they paying homage to Van Halen in the most awkward possible manner, but they are also inevitably setting themselves up for comparisons against the genuinely cool hard rock legends. As if that were not enough, the title and cover may also trigger thoughts of the extravagant hair metal produced during the 1980s: a scene heavily influenced by Van Halen and that coined a type of sound and aesthetic which, much due to their cheesiness, have radically fallen out of favor with contemporary audiences.

“Van Weezer”, therefore, concentrates in concept alone a shocking amount of corniness in the same package. And it is precisely because of that high density that the album is so smart. There is so much cheesiness to it that the only explanation for the embarrassing awkwardness is that it was deliberate. More than being a homage, then, the record is one of those bad jokes told by a comedian who is fully aware of its foul quality. If the audience opts to laugh, they are admitting to have some fondness for the terrible material; if the public chooses to criticize the act, that means they are too sour and dull to appreciate the lovable silliness. In conclusion, there is no way those listening to the joke will come out of the experience looking too good; it is impossible to win against such cleverness.

The title of “Van Weezer”, though, is not just an open declaration of corniness. It also happens to be a letter of stylistic intentions, as the band signals that after five albums hopping between a myriad of genres, they are ready to rock out again. And as the nod to Van Halen reveals, Weezer pulls out pedals and amplifiers aiming for the loudness of hard rock. It is a premise that should make longtime fans think of “Maladroit”, the fourth release by the group, which exchanged their usual power pop sound for large riffs of heavy metal inspiration. But, truth be told, “Van Weezer” is not as weighty as that work, emerging – instead – as a solid compromise between the group’s signature constant distorted strums and the testosterone-infused riffage of the heavy metal world.

Much of that needs to be credited, for the good and for the bad, to the production. “Maladroit” was raw and dry; it felt like a series of tracks recorded by a band playing live and loud inside a garage, with little to no touches being added after the music was first committed to tape. Contrarily, in “Van Weezer”, there is a bit of a hair metal gloss. Thankfully, the drums drenched in gated reverb and the tacky keyboard noises (two hair metal staples which were also among the greatest musical plagues of the 1980s) are nowhere to be seen. Yet, “Van Weezer” clearly trades part of its potential roughness for a brand of hard rock with pop leanings, meaning that even though it is among the heaviest works by the band, it does not go as far in that direction as it could have.

That subdued approach is somewhat harmful to “Van Weezer” because it diminishes its capacity to be a rather unique entry in the group’s discography, since the combination of distorted guitars with simple song structures and catchy melodies seen here has been prevalent in more than half of Weezer’s albums. Nevertheless, the record carries a few exclusive traits. For starters, the fact it balances the band’s usual strumming with extravagant riffing makes the segments of a few songs be more heavy metal than power pop; the opening of “Blue Dream”, for instance, flagrantly borrows from Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”. In addition, the tones of the solos tend to have a bright screaming quality to them, recalling the ones seen in the early albums of Metallica. At last, as a whole, the choruses of the tunes are anthemtic energetic singalongs, exhibiting melodies that would cause metal fans in a stadium to do some fist-pumping before realizing the music is excessively poppy and the lyrics talk too much about feelings.

Undoubtedly, there are some dull moments in “Van Weezer”, and they happen to be concentrated towards the second half of the record: “Blue Dream” has a great riff, but does not build to anything significant; “1 More Hit” has an embarrassing pre-chorus and a heavy metal break that does not gel with the rest of the track; “She Needs Me” is melodically uninspired; and “Precious Metal Girl” is a forgettable acoustic closer. But everywhere else, the combination brought by “Van Weezer” works. “Hero” explodes out of the gate; “All the Good Ones” begs for listeners to clap along; “The End of the Game” has a chorus whose melodic beauty would be worthy of the “Blue Album”; “I Need Some of That” has an irresistible call-and-response refrain; “Beginning of the End” is melodically moving; and “Sheila Can Do It” is pure power pop goodness.

Despite the fact it uses deliberate excessive cheesiness as a shield, it is impossible to let “Van Weezer” get away from criticisms concerning clumsy lyrics, which are indeed abundant. Yet, even if combined with the weaker tracks, which make up almost half of the record, Cuomo’s unshakable corniness is not enough to bring the work down completely. In a discography that has nearly as many good album as it has bad ones, “Van Weezer” can be easily filed among the enjoyable group. The heavy metal motif could have yielded more significant results with a rawer production, but the bottom line is that, through ups and downs, “Van Weezer” is a fun listen. Clocking in at thirty minutes, it is a short, relaxed, and satisfying effort put together by four guys who were clearly having a blast trying to emulate their hard rock heroes as best as they could. And in the midst of muscular riffing, screaming guitars, and fist-pumping choruses, the band finds enough inspiration to breathe a little freshness into their sound while being able to both take advantage of their well-known strengths and showcase their familiar awkward weaknesses.




Album: 154

Artist: Wire

Released: September 23rd, 1979

Highlights: I Should Have Known Better, The 15th, On Returning, Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3

Much like The Stooges, the MC5, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls, Wire was a punk rock band that rather than fading away slowly, burned out quickly. In their case, the interval between 1976 and 1979 was all that it took for the quartet to burst into the scene, put out three influential records, and call it a day. Sure, anyone who knows of the group’s history will point out that they would eventually return into the fray nearly one decade later in 1987 and go on to publish more than a dozen new works. However, by the time of their comeback, not only was the whole punk rock explosion a distant sight in the rear-view mirror, but Wire itself was – naturally – quite a different band.

Unlike their short-lived punk rock peers, which used their brief careers in the genre to pound mercilessly at the same style of music, Wire went the other way and took advantage of their concise classic run to cover a lot of ground. Their legendary debut, “Pink Flag”, was not just purely punk to the core; somehow launching into twenty-one tunes in thirty-five minutes, the album was actually defined as the genre’s operatic suite. Released only a few months later, “Chairs Missing” was still quite direct and focused, but it had firmer song structures and – more notably – a heavy dosage of experimentation in dark sparse songs that signaled post-punk was the new tendency in rock.

Coming out one year later and serving as the third piece of that puzzle, “154” – a number that refers to the amount of shows the band had played up to that point – is another type of animal altogether. A quick glance at the duration of the record’s thirteen tracks is enough to reveal that Wire is, here, dabbling into material that is rather different: none of the tunes are shorter than two minutes and more than half of them go over the three-minute mark, which is – for those who had written “Pink Flag” – the equivalent to progressive rock running time. Of course, such lengths could indicate Wire has actually become a standard rock band that writes normal songs, but listening to “154” reveals that is far from the case. This is an album that is more artistically ambitious than all of those that preceded it, digging even deeper in the experimental direction of its predecessors.

“154”, similarly to “Chairs Missing”, can be safely labeled as a post-punk album. There is a deal of irresistible pop catchiness to it, which does the favor of bringing accessible counterpoints to its otherwise mostly confrontational nature, but through most of the way the record checks all of the boxes expected out of the more somber spectrum of the style. “154” is cold, dark, industrial, disturbing, and distant. It does not display these qualities to the extreme of contemporaries like Joy Division or The Cure, because Wire simply does not have the serious and dramatic artistic inspirations of Ian Curtis or Robert Smith. Nevertheless, those defining elements are certainly in the package, albeit in a very distinct format, which ends up doing the album a whole lot of good.

Ultimately, what makes “154” unique is the same set of ingredients that turned “Chairs Missing” into a notable work, with the difference being that they appear more prominently this time around. This is threatening and mechanical post-punk that goes hard on synthesizers, keyboards, and – especially – guitar effects to create a peculiar atmosphere. But instead of going for such oppressive environment via the meticulously constructed path taken by other post-punk bands of the sort, Wire shuns those approaches and bets on a more basic road. What the band is doing here is essentially taking the do-it-yourself punk ethos and applying them to somber post-punk. Although much of the material is daring, nothing is pulled off in a musically ambitious way. “154” is, therefore, as basic, raw, and stripped down as it gets, using that punk spirit not to play fast-paced rock and roll, but to create experimental music.

In general, the best cuts in the album are those that match wild sonic trips with strong melodies, serving as a perfect middle ground between straightforward punk and boundary-pushing music. “I Should Have Known Better” is a cavernous track that anticipates the early releases of Echo & the Bunnymen; with cold narrated verses that reach subdued despair in the hooky chorus, it moves forward at a mechanical pace, with the song’s central beat being mostly provided by the guitars, as the drums focus on adorning the ominous soundscape with clicks. “The 15th” is melodically gorgeous; built on a layer made up of a pair of guitars, one quite clean that plays arpeggios and another drenched in noise that forms the base, the track uses synthesizers to put together what is the closest Wire has ever gotten to a post-punk ballad. With sparse instrumentation, the lengthy “A Touching Display” plods in a threatening way with dissonant guitars and drones that make it a distant offspring of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. “On Returning” follows with a fast-paced progression filled with alien keyboard sounds that frantically build to a culminating emotional release. And similarly drenched in effects, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3” is a lighter poppier tune that flirts with new wave.

On the more purely experimental side, none of the tunes match the greatness of these five songs, but interesting results emerge nonetheless. “Two People In a Room” has a relentless paranoid groove that, in two minutes, features talking, shouting, and an attempt at a more melodic passage. Likewise, “Single K.O.”, which carries an iconic riff as its central hook, shows the members of Wire are still masters at packing unpredictable undefined structures into short running times, given this is a free-flowing composition that keeps attaching itself to different melodies as seconds pass. Finally, “Blessed State”, probably the album’s only relaxing song, has entwining guitars that – in a less technically proficient way – recall Television, since the two play contrasting arpeggio-based lines that clash in beautiful synergy.

As it happened with “Chairs Missing”, however, the downfall of “154” and the factor that keeps it away from being an equal to “Pink Flag” is the fact that Wire’s experimental detours – as commendable and inspiring as they were – fail to be totally productive with a considerable frequency. “The Other Window” and “Indirect Enquiries” are horror movie material of surrealistic musical quality, but are not exactly appealing as songs from a studio record. “Once Is Enough” and “40 Versions” have potential thanks to their interesting guitar lines, the former heavy and the latter nigh electronic, but disintegrate into chaos before they are able to build on their ideas. Lastly, “A Mutual Friend” reaches a satisfying melodic conclusion, but it takes a while wandering through dull experimentation to get there. Because of these weaker moments, “154” is far from being the stone-cold classic it could have been given the stylistic uniqueness of its construction. However, be it due to its influence on future generations or as a consequence of the bridge it builds between punk rock and avant-garde music, listening to it is not just generally enjoyable, but also key in understanding the changes rock went through when the spark of punk started to fade.


Everything Will Be Alright In The End


Album: Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Artist: Weezer

Released: October 7th, 2014

Highlights: Eulogy for a Rock Band, The British Are Coming, Da Vinci, Cleopatra

From the early days of their career, it was pretty clear that Weezer – more specifically their leader – had one incredibly hard time adjusting to the pressures, trappings, and expectations that come with being a popular rock band. Rivers Cuomo’s demeanor is quiet, introspective, nerdy, and lacking much self-esteem, and all these traits, especially when combined, forge a personality that is not quite equipped to deal with the spotlight; at least not without first going through a whole lot of growing pains. As such, much of the group’s career can be read as a clumsily performed balancing act between two forces: the need to deliver material that the fans will appreciate, a pull maximized by Cuomo’s low confidence; and the artist’s absolutely natural urge to give air to what he feels, which – in the case of Rivers – includes a good amount of awkwardly expressed sentimentality.

It has always been an odd road. Along it, advances and retreats have been common from both parts. “Pinkerton”, Weezer’s second work, was famously dismissed upon release only to slowly rise to the status of masterpiece over the years, with many changing their perception regarding the album. Similarly, the two records that followed it, “Green Album” and “Maladroit”, were initially treated warmly; however, as the band produced one dull shot at mass appeal (“Make Believe”) and two silly attempts to be hip (“Red Album” and “Raditude”), the pair began to be analyzed as part of the band’s classic period, exposing a genuine rock sound that fans claimed to miss and that Weezer – very much aware of those complaints – tried, but not quite succeeded, to revive in “Hurley”.

If there has been one point in this tortuous post-Maladroit journey in which the two sides of the struggle have been satisfied, with Weezer putting together the album that they wanted whilst pleasing folks who longed for the return of their classic sound, then it is “Everything Will Be Alright in the End”. Surely, as an artistic statement, its follow-up, “White Album”, is stronger, since it feels like a revitalizing step forward rather than a return to familiar grounds. But “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is equally alluring not only because it is a fun listen, but also due to the fact it is a delightful rarity in music: a conscious and successful move by an older band to go back to sounding like they did in their glory days.

Here, it all begins with producer Rick Ocasek. The leader of The Cars, and master of constructing immortal tracks that matched the dangerous attitude of rock with the accessibility of pop, had already lent his talent to two of Weezer’s best works: their untouchable debut and their solid third release. His presence behind the board, therefore, points to the music the boys were aiming to create. And, by all means, they hit it right on target. Like The Cars did in their heyday, Weezer rose to stardom via the combination of rock and pop. But where Ocasek’s group drank from the keyboard gloss of the era, Weezer borrowed their sweetness from power pop as well as from The Beach Boys while getting their heaviness from hard rock, punk, and even the grunge that dominated the scene at the time they got their start. Consequently, like both the “Blue Album” and the “Green Album”, “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is sustained by two elements: a stream of impossibly catchy melodies and a constant bed of guitars that is relentless like those of the Ramones, heavy like those of Kiss, and towering like those of The Smashing Pumpkins.

The return to the band’s roots as well as the ever-existing tug of war between Weezer and its fans are actually acknowledged by Cuomo himself in some of the lyrics, a move that brings thematic freshness to “Everything Will Be Alright in the End”. In the first single, “Back to the Shack”, not only does he recognize he might have alienated his audience with the musical detours he took in the years that preceded the record, but he also expresses concern over it, declaring Weezer will try to recapture the magic that was lost. As expected, the album also touches on Rivers’ usual topics of preference, including girls and his troubled relationship with his father, but even these tired matters seem to be tackled more charmingly this time around. When it comes to relationships, for example, “Da Vinci” is a likable, funny, and geeky love song, with the singer saying the subject of his affection could be neither captured by the Italian genius nor explained by Stephen Hawking; at the same time, in relation to his progenitor, “Foolish Father” turns the issue on its head when Rivers expresses fear that his daughter might see his own flaws down the line.

The album is not a smooth journey of power pop goodness all the way through. “Ain’t Got Nobody” and “Back to the Shack”, curiously the first two songs, are a tad average. Although they have plenty of guitar punch, with the second recalling the heavy metal flair of “Maladroit”, their melodies are mundane and their hooks feel forced. The opener, in particular, is further damaged by how in it – as its title indicates – Rivers falls victim to his greatest enemy, his self-pity, lamenting the fact he has been abandoned by his girl, his father, and his audience. Fortunately, as soon as “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” reaches its third cut (“Eulogy for a Rock Band”) and the spectacular riff it carries, the record kicks into a sequence of remarkable tunes that the band had not coined in well over a decade.

It is all there. Like it happened in the “Green Album”, the thick distorted wall of guitars joins the tracks at the hip, as if they were part of the same whole. Therefore, it is up to the elements buried in the noise – the searing lead guitar lines, the melodic work, the cutting solos, and the sunny backing vocals – to set them apart. And they do it quite well. “Lonely Girl” bursts out of the gate as immediately and loudly as “Buddy Holly”. “I’ve Had It Up to Here” has the band locking on a dancy groove and Rivers delivering a surprising falsetto. Covering the American Revolutionary War, “The British Are Coming” is the best song Weezer has produced in a while, making one wish Cuomo would take on historical themes more often. “Da Vinci” has verses built on playful whistling and acoustic picking that recall “El Scorcho”. “Go Away” is a sweet duet with Bethany Cosentino that mirrors the slower moments of the group’s classic era. “Cleopatra” pairs up unplugged guitars with electric ones in the same way as “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here”. And “Foolish Father” builds to a choir cathartically singing the album’s title over some hard rock pounding.

“Everything Will Be Alright in the End” is a triumph. And it is, thereby, suiting that it ends on what feels like a victory lap: a three-part suite that contains one song, “Anonymous”, book-ended by two loose and fun instrumental segments. Much like “The End”, which basically closed out The Beatles’ “Abbey Road”, it feels like a well-deserved celebration by a group that has just lifted a huge burden off its shoulders. But where the Fab Four were saying farewell to a career of musical wonder, Weezer is partying for a much simpler reason: getting back on track. On the great scope of musical history, the two occasions hardly compare; however, to Cuomo, to his bandmates, and to their fans, the moment will certainly feel just as big, because not only does “Everything Will Be Alright in the End” create a – temporary – peace treaty between the factions, but it also proves that Weezer is still capable of delivering good music, even if much of their output following “Maladroit” says otherwise.



Album: Who

Artist: The Who

Released: December 6th, 2019

Highlights: All This Music Must Fade, Ball and Chain, Hero Ground Zero, Street Song, Break the News

It may be jarring to some, but fans of The Who – particularly those who are familiar with Pete Townshend’s personality and its unique blend of insecurity, arrogance, and dangerously honest rhetoric – will not be too surprised when they realize the band’s guitar player and songwriter opens the group’s twelfth album by penning a review of his own. Sung by Roger Daltrey, the first verses of “All This Music Must Fade” claim that “I don’t care / I know you’re gonna hate this song / And that’s fair / We never really got along / It’s not new, not diverse / It won’t light up your parade / It’s just simple verse”. It is a great, but obvious, defense for a man who – well into his seventies – knows that any music he produces at this point will be compared unfavorably to his classics of the past; and it is also a perfect description of what many people will feel regarding “Who”. Yet, the statement is not entirely accurate.

Townshend is correct when he says that the batch of eleven original tunes in the album is not new, diverse, or structurally challenging. Likewise, it does not take the knowledge of a music business insider to confidently state that the tracks of a The Who record released in 2019 will not light up any parades. He is probably lying, though, when he says he does not care. As much as the public’s perception of “Who” will not do much to affect the life a multimillionaire rock star, Townshend has always – accidentally – let the world know he is very much worried about the acknowledgement of his genius, and that is bound not to change. Finally, his immediate disparaging of “All This Music Must Fade” is downright wrong: it is a fantastic tune, one that carries his band’s signature sound whilst being contemporary enough to make it with any kind of crowd.

Although the quality of the songs oscillates as “Who” moves along, that is a description that could easily apply to the work as a whole. In a way, the record is a bit of a miracle; after all, since the band’s last good original product, 1978’s “Who Are You”, more than four decades have passed, and during that period the group was far from productive, releasing two mediocre LPs (“Face Dances” and “It’s Hard”) during the 80s that failed to reconstruct the band following the death of legendary drummer Keith Moon and publishing “Endless Wire” in 2006, a bloated and conceptual piece that diluted some very good musical moments amidst an overwhelming amount of lackluster cuts. However, looking at “Who” from another perspective reveals that its relative success makes sense.

Townshend has always been an excellent songwriter, and not only does “Who” come on the heels of a worldwide tour whose quality proved that, up on a stage, the current incarnation of The Who could still deliver the goods, the album also benefits from the fact it holds no frills at all. “Who” is the result of a well-oiled machine and one of the British Invasion’s brightest composers walking into a studio, doing what they know best, and putting the whole process on a tape. Without a storyline or an overarching message for him to get lost in, and with a very good band operating at high capacity, Townshend succeeds in assembling an enjoyable and straightforward rock album, an artifact that many doubted he was still capable of creating.

As it is the norm with The Who, the operation was not as simple as it looks. Townshend and Daltrey, who have repeatedly stated over the years they were never friends, recorded their parts separately and by using different producers. Nonetheless, it all comes together. Despite the lack of a unified theme, “Who” could be seen as some sort of older brother to “The Who by Numbers”, for while in the latter Townshend’s personal lyrics revealed that a rock and roll hero had come crashing into a mundane midlife crisis (showing such dreaded phase is an inevitability even to those who seem immortal), the former has numerous tracks that deal with old age. Starting with “All This Music Must Fade”, in which the songwriter embraces the fact that everyone eventually becomes irrelevant, regardless of whether they have written their names in the history books or not, the album features several moments when Townshend confronts his wrinkles, going into digressions about mortality, reincarnation, wisdom, and The Who’s own history.

It is a recipe that could be dangerous for a rock album, for the genre was never really favorable to the ramblings of older folks; “The Who by Numbers” itself was – despite its greatness – warmly received in large part because of its tendency to deal with thoughts that appear as the years accumulate. The theme, though, is much safer this time around: Townshend knows most of those who are still listening to him are old as well and, therefore, can relate; furthermore, still showing sings that – at heart – he remains a rebellious punk, he makes it clear he remains ready to fight. In “Rockin’ in Rage”, he mockingly and cleverly summarizes that conflict in the chorus when he says “I’m rockin’ in rage, forward and back / My bones is engaged / They splinter and crack”.

Appropriately, the music of “Who” also exhibits that dichotomy. It is punctually angry and occasionally contemplative. “Ball and Chain”, for instance, is a tense and quietly furious blues track where Townshend gets political, attacking the injustices of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; “Beads on One String” is a ballad showered by lush synthesizers that seems to simultaneously comment on two kinds of war, those that are personal and those that are collective; “Break the News”, written by Simon Townshend, is a gorgeous acoustic stomp; “Street Song” could be the steady soundtrack to a march or a protest; “Hero Ground Zero” is – like the best tunes out of “Tommy”, “Who’s Next”, and “Quadrophenia” – simple but able to muster a gigantic size thanks to a layered arrangement that includes electronic elements and an orchestra; and “I’ll Be Back” is the classic Townshend jab at folk, being honest and filled with personal anguish.

“Who” fails to reach for full excellence due to a few dull moments: “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” starts out promising but could have used a better chorus; “Detour” is playful and bouncy, relating to the band’s R&B origins, but ultimately uninspired; and both “I’ll Be Back” and “She Rocked My World” click as intimate statements but do not nail it as songs. However, there is no denying it is a worthy addition to The Who’s canon: it features tasteful production; it has Townshend being particularly inspired in his signature usage of synthesizers, which invariably enhance the tunes quite a bit; it boasts fantastic vocal performances by Roger Daltrey, whose voice has aged unbelievably well; and it simply contains a lot of notable songs. In the end, the self-deprecating statement that opens the album is nothing but a bluff; Townshend knows that “Who” is good, and most that listen to the album without questioning whether The Who should be making music as of 2019 (a matter that only truly concerns the members of the band and their will) are likely to realize it.