Monthly Archives: July 2014

Weezer’s “Back to the Shack”: Send It Back, Please

 

If “Back to the Shack” is any indication, count me out for checking out Weezer’s new album Everything Will Be Alright in the End.  Some fans will argue that they haven’t put out anything good since Pinkerton but I tend to think that Make Believe was their latest album worth listening to.  “Beverly Hills” alone makes the album a worthy contribution to Weezer’s catalogue.

Weezer has always been known for being clever, but on “Back to the Shack” Rivers Cuomo seems to be trying too hard.  It seems as he’s adrift in his songwriting and knows that fans haven’t dug Ratitude or Hurley so he purposely throws in some self references to try and grab the old fans attention.  When Cuomo sings that he wants to “go back to the strat with the lighting strap” you have to wonder if he’s traveling down the road of nostalgia for himself or his fans.

Weezer aren’t the first or last band to try to reclaim their old glory by looking to their past glories for inspiration.  Voodoo Lounge and A Bigger Bang tried to capture the feeling of Exile on Main St. to mixed results. R.E.M. went back to their basic guitar sound after the shitpile that was Around the Sun.  Perhaps Cuomo thinks that if he’s purposely throws it out there, that it won’t be seen as a parody but instead ironic.

And he might have been able to get away with it, if the music were better.  For the first time ever on a Weezer song, the band sounds tired.  The main riff that drives the song sounds clunky at best. The whole thing sounds unconvincing. At least Ratitude and Hurley had some energy, spark and adventure.  On “Back to the Shack”, Weezer sound like they’ve turned into their own worst tribute band: a tribute band that thought it could write a Weezer original.

How Nirvana Exposed “MTV Unplugged” For the Farce It Was

In the ’90s, if were a “serious” rock artist, there’s a good chance you ended up giving a performance on MTV Unplugged. As a show, Unplugged became something of a cultural touchstone.  In an era before social media and Youtube, Unplugged was one of the few ways that a fan could catch a glimpse of their favorite band performing within the confines of their own household. For younger artists, the Unplugged performances provided them with two very important (but different) motives: exposure and a bid for credibility.  Older artists such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan had one foot in the acoustic realm already and didn’t really need exposure, so I’ve never why they agreed to it in the first place. Naturally, the younger artists ate this shit up. Bands such as Live, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam among others stripped their songs to the core in a bid for legitimacy. They (incorrectly) assumed that by taking away their amps, critics and new audiences would suddenly realize how great their songs actually were.  Alice in Chains songs became even more morbid and Live’s faux-spirituality was exposed for the farce it was. Pearl Jam gave a spirited performance, but Eddie Vedder’ s stage antics (which included surfing on his stool and scrawling the words “pro-choice” on his arms) seemed more like desperation than anything else because he didn’t know what else to do.  He’s a gifted performer, but on the Unplugged show, his presence seemed clunky at best. If an artists need to strip the songs down in order to convince people that they’re great, maybe the songs aren’t that great after-all. I’ve always thought that if it takes an acoustic version of a song for you to realize the song is good, the song is either 1.) either shit to begin with or 2.) you weren’t listening properly. Eric Clapton’s version of “Layla” on Unplugged is a great example. I’ve had discussions with people in a bar (why someone would play that version on a jukebox is beyond me) about this.  It’s actually happened more than once.  Usually it involves some guy trying to convince me, that the Unplugged version is miles better than the original “Layla” because “we can feel his pain.” Really? It took the Unplugged version of “Layla” for you to “discover” that Clapton is tortured?  The lyrics, the biting, interlocking guitars and poignant piano coda didn’t tip you off?  Is there a “happy” electric version of “Layla” that I’m not aware of, lurking around in Clapton’s vaults? This isn’t to say that I’m against acoustic-based music. Anyone who loves folk music and Bob Dylan as much as I do, can’t hate acoustic guitars.  But I am against the idea that by “stripping” a song to only acoustic instruments somehow makes it “better” or more “artistic”.  Do you think that the Sex Pistols, any Phil Spector produced single or Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” would “better” if they were acoustic? But in the ’90s, everyone seemed convinced of this charade. No one more-so than Nirvana. It’s no secret that Kurt Cobain desperately wanted to seen as an “artist”, while MTV was practically foaming at the mouth over a possible Nirvana Unplugged performance.  It seemed to be a match made in heaven. Over the years, the behind the scenes stories of Nirvana’s Unplugged performance detail how Cobain did not want to play his hits. I can understand that.  But I’m willing to bet that he also realized that songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart Shaped Box” would sound terrible in acoustic form.  Who would want to hear a stripped down version  of the fuzz-punk snarl of “Breed” or a lifeless version of “Teen Spirit”?  If they had chose to do that, I’m almost certain critics would have cried foul and the Nirvana myth wouldn’t loom as large as it does today. Wisely, Nirvana played only a handful of their own songs, and filled the rest of their set with obscure covers and a mini-Meat Puppets set.  Their own songs were mostly ones that seemed suited to an acoustic form.  But everyone knows the best songs on that performances are the covers, particularly Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and the folk standard “In the Pines” (re-titled  here as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”). Those two songs showed that Nirvana were great interpreters while also revealing that Unplugged as a way for artists to prove that their own songs were great, is a complete farce.  Because almost any person who likes that album will tell you that those two songs were the best.  And as for Nirvana?  The band and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” have done pretty well in the credibility department without Unplugged.

Is “Shiny Happy People” As Bad As You Remember It? Not Quite

 

“Shiny Happy People” is one of those songs that almost everyone seems to hate.  It’s constantly viewed as not only the worst song in R.E.M.’s career, but one of the worst songs ever recorded.  (A pretty lofty claim.)  I blame much of this hatred on the song’s video.  It took an already cheesy and campy song, and double-dipped it in a sugary glaze that would make Krispy Kreme donuts weep with its bright colors, and awkward dancing courtesy of Michael Stipe.  Viewers who had grown up with the R.E.M. of the mid-80s (when they could do no wrong and recorded a string of near-perfect albums) cried foul.  That band was nowhere to be seen in the video for “Shiny Happy People”. 

But let’s think about this for a second.  Yes, the video is pretty bad.  The song itself, not so much.  It’s incredibly poppy and silly, but it’s not like R.E.M hadn’t recorded goofy songs before.   “Stand” is pretty much a pre-cursor to “Shiny Happy People” and “Pop Song 89” is pretty goofy too, especially when Michael Stipe did his patented should dance when the band performed the song live.  And as for embarrassing, has anyone recently listened to “Radio Song” off of Out of Time (the same album which “Shiny Happy People” appears on) recently?  Even the mention of that trash makes me cringe?  KRS-One and the band must have been good friends (and possibly stoned?) for that to be recorded and actually see the light of day.  And to make matters worse, the fucking thing opened the record!  In case you were wondering, I also count Reveal and Around the Sun as being embarrassing too, but I usually just become sad when I think about those records.)

As a kid, I loved “Shiny Happy People”.  I was about 9 when Out of Time came out, and it was one of the few songs on the album I could actually relate to.  It made me incredibly happy, even though I loved the rest of the album too.   But it was a nice contrast to the acoustic and folk influences that permeated the rest of the record.  I loved the carnival-like intro and its reprise during the bridge.  Mike Mills count-off and exclamation of “Here we go!”  when the band kicked back into the main riff made me giddy. 

When I became a teenager, I grew to loathe the song and had a hard time defending it to kids in my high-school class.  Whenever I’d profess my love for R.E.M. (which was pretty often) almost inevitably, someone would bring up, that song.  “Yeah, yeah…it’s pretty bad…but you should check out…Murmur or Reckoning,” was usually my response. 

After years of not hearing it, I heard it on the radio a few years ago and was shocked by how much I didn’t hate it.  Hey, it’s not that bad!  It’s certainly better than I remember.  The guitar riff was pretty good and in its own way, classic Peter Buck.  But as soon as Kate’s Pierson’s voice came in syncing with Michael Stipe’s it occurred to me that “Shiny Happy People” wasn’t really a R.E.M. song after all.  It makes much more sense if you think of it as a B-52s song. 

 “Love Shack”, “Rock Lobster” and “Roam” (among many others) are all overly campy, silly and sweet and those songs have become staples.  You’re likely to hear “Love Shack” at almost any wedding or reception that has dancing involved.  The audience knows what they’re getting from a B-52s song, and many people love them for it. 

But R.E.M. isn’t known for that – even though both bands came out of the Athens music scene in the late 70s and early 80s – they’re a serious band.  Imagine if the B-52s had recorded “Shiny Happy People”.   It might not be universally loved, but I’d be willing to bet that it would be more popular than it is now and people wouldn’t hate it the way they do.