Monday, February 28, 2011

The Rentals are Fredo Corleone?

I've been thinking a lot about The Killers lately, but only because I've been listening to Pinkerton a ton. You wouldn't think the Killers and Weezer have anything in common, and sonically, I guess they don't, but after the release of both of their first albums (which incidentally came almost exactly a decade apart: Weezer ("The Blue Album") in May of 1994, Hot Fuss in June of 2004... not sure if that's poignant or not, but whatevs), both bands found themselves in near identical situations, and both bands chose dramatically different paths for their second records. The early careers of both Weezer and The Killers may have only coincidental similarities, but when looked at in tandem, the first 2 years of their recording careers serve as the perfect examples for both the good and the evil that goes along with super-stardom.

Both bands released their debuts to little immediate fanfare. Both band's first singles petered out before cracking Billboard's Top 50 ("Somebody Told Me" reached #51, and "Undone (The Sweater Song)" reached #57), both albums took off commercially with the release of the second singles ("Buddy Holly" and "Mr. Brightside"), and both albums eventually went Triple Platinum in the US.

But as I look back now, what really seems to be the tie that binds these guys is that, when listening to these records when they first came out, I got the distinct impression from both bands that the guys who made these albums probably got beat up by the cool kids in High School: Weezer for being dorks who spent their weekends playing D&D while cranking Fair Warning or Dressed to Kill, The Killers for being effeminate boys who cared more about fashion than football. Either way, both bands wrote and recorded fantastic debuts that would clearly become hits in the sequestered world of Indie-Rock, but be unlikely (but not undeserving) conquerors of the mainstream Rock universe. Both bands seemed to operate too far outside of the boundaries of normal (nerd-central and hipster-metro-sexual) for mainstream audiences to be comfortable enough to make them successful. Clearly, I couldn't have been more wrong. Both bands achieved that second scenario...crossover success.

There isn't a negative connotation in the general sense of the term "crossover success". It really just means that an artist who should have a niche audience makes a record that satisfies the needs of those outside of that niche. I'm sure there are apartment-dwellers in Brooklyn cranking Taylor Swift, just as there are 13 year old, upper-crust, private school suburbanites in my neck of the woods blasting Jay-Z. And the Jigga fans that bought the "In My Lifetime" single out of Damon Dash's trunk in 1993 aren't pissed at Jay because a bunch of entitled snots bought The Blueprint 3. My guess is that most of them see his ability to sell records to kids who have no clue about where he's coming from or what he has to say to be a testament to his talent. His shit's just that good. But "crossover" doesn't mean the same thing in the street-cred-obsessed-but-not-from-the-streets world of Indie-Rock.

Generally speaking, in Indie-Rock, "crossover" is really just another term for "sell-out". When a band on the rock fringe finds itself in the warm and unlikely embrace of the common folk, Indie-Rock fans usually jumped ship about 3 months earlier. But after their debuts, both The Killers and Weezer found themselves in the dubious position of achieving mainstream success while retaining their niche appeal. Even with the chart-topping albums and FM pop radio-friendly singles, Indie fans didn't abandon them. I don't think commercial ascendancy was necessarily embraced by the cool kids, but they didn't lose interest either. And as the clamor for a second record exponentially grew, both bands found themselves in the same position, only a decade's worth of time apart. (Weezer released their second album in September of 1996, The Killers in October of 2006, exactly 28 months after each their debuts.)

Very few bands have have the luxury of finding themselves in such a precarious circumstance. But when a band is confronted with this unlikely situation, it's time to make hard and important decisions; what direction does record #2 take?

You could go the Red Hot Chili Peppers' route and stay the course. (Granted, the Chili Peppers didn't find themselves in such a place until after their 4th record, but still...) It's certainly the safest road to travel. You could record a couple of great records still. (After RHCP broke through with Mother's Milk, they recorded the absolutely brilliant Blood, Sugar, Sex, Majik, the solid One Hot Minute, and the remarkable Californication.) You'll probably lose 10 to 25% of your overall fan-base to boredom, and you run the inevitable risk of eventually becoming invalid (i.e., Stadium Arcadium) but you'll retain the bulk of your fans, probably gain some new ones, and ultimately enjoy a relatively solid commercial harvest.

Road #2 is the Coldplay route. Taking this path is playing it more than safe; it's playing it commercial. You can adapt your music to market trends, make songs that are well-written but so absolutely white-bread, dry-toast, horribly uncreative and obviously formulaic that they clearly cater to the lowest artistic common denominator and result in records that sell like hotcakes but sound and ultimately are soulless and nearly indistinguishable from anything else you (or anyone else on top 40 radio, for that matter) have recorded and are an absolute tedious listen to anyone who isn't a sheep or over 40 with a desperate desire to be hip without hurting their ears. Oh, Coldplay sells a shitton of records, but at what cost? You'll make more effing money than you can ever hope to spend, and you'll get to marry Gwyneth Paltrow, but you'll no longer be any good...and you'll name your daughter Apple (not so hot either).

Then there's road #3. The third path, the one least traveled. This is the route with the greatest level of risk/reward...the Nirvana route. You could look at your breakthrough record and acknowledge that it was a success, drawing in and hooking the hardest core of fans as well as the most casual of listeners and make the decision to up the ante, expand the boundaries of modern commercial musical mores, break new ground, not simply try to push the envelope but attempt to fucking set it on fire and burn it to cinders. You can try to alter the face of modern music. The impact might not be directly noticeable, but it will ultimately manipulate the shape and parameters of contemporary tuneage. Even if your contribution doesn't engender an automatic change in popular music, it can at least pave the way for future endeavors, whether from you or artists influenced by you. Even if your attempt at progressive adaptation falls on deaf ears initially, it may and probably will result in some up-and-coming youngster fucking up people's world and making modern music a more compelling force because of being influenced by that record you made.

So if the parallels I see between the first two years of both Weezer's and The Killers' careers  aren't completely imagined, this is where their paths diverge. Weezer chooses one road, The Killers choose another. This is where these two bands truly become different.  Weezer goes one way. and essentially,  The Killers became the Indie-Rock Saruman the White.

The Killers had the world by the balls, and that grip was well deserved. In 2004, Hot Fuss was about as good as Indie-Rock gets. Even people who didn't like that album bought that album because it was totally irresistible. It was the perfect mix of Indie street cred and sugary-sweet, radio-friendly pop. Every song on that record could have been a hit. They were that good. The Killers were poised to unite, or at least bridge the gap a little between the arthouse* sect and the mainstream herd. They could have taken the unlikely situation that Hot Fuss generated and pleased the hipster contingent while potentially expanding the world of the imaginatively inept by pushing the boundaries of their creative indulgences, even if only slightly, and helped to usher in a new era of commercially viable music that was just as artistic as it was marketable. They had the opportunity and the means. In 2004, if Indie-Rock bands were Istari, The Killers were certainly the leader. But like that Son of a Bitch Saruman, they got scared and greedy.

Let's face it, Saruman was no idiot. You don't get to be the leader of all Wizards on Middle-Earth if you're a dummy. He saw the writing on the wall. He saw that the potential for success was at best slim. Shit, everybody saw that the potential for destroying Sauron hung around the neck of a naive little guy with big hairy feet. Can Hobbits even run with those feet? And Hobbits were always full of greasy meat and beer, that's hardly the diet for an active hero. How is some full-bellied, kind of drunk dude who's never left home going to elude the Nazgûl flying around on the mounted backs of the Fell Beasts, let alone The Dark Lord Sauron, if he can't even run because he's got a bunch of junk sloshing around in his breadbasket and his feet are too big to be graceful?

Things looked bleak in Middle-Earth when the fate of the world rested on dear Frodo's shoulders. It didn't take a genius to see the potential benefits in becoming a turncoat, but Gandalf didn't bail, neither did Aragorn or, Éowyn, or Pippin, and sweet Sam, well, frankly, Samwise Gamgee risked just as much as Frodo did with a lot less glory. They didn't bail because they had principles. They all thought it was better to die fighting for good than throwing on the manacles of evil, no matter how comfortable and stylish they might be.

But not Saruman. No, Saruman got scared. Saruman saw the potential for failure in supporting Frodo and the rest of his Fellowship of misfits, and the possibility for great wealth and comfort in backing that very darkest of horses, The Dark Lord of Mordor, Sauron. So he took the easy way out. He took the road that seemed most lucrative and least risky. He took the path of Coldplay.

Okay, so Saruman had Wormtongue doing his bidding as a result, and he did get that kind of kick-ass army of blood-thirsty Orcs at his disposal, but what was he left with? Wormtongue killed him. He took the wrong path to avoid death and gain wealth only to be cast out of society and die at the hands Gríma Wormtongue, a filthy sycophant, a grimy, slimy liar; a lowlife if there ever was one.

Reenter The Killers, welcoming us to Sam's Town. They had the chance to change everything, but just like Saruman, they chose the easy way out. They feared obscurity, they craved a wider commercial appeal. What they ended up with was a record that has easily one of the most exciting lead singles of the last decade, and 11 other tracks that make dust-covered dog shit look like a motherfucking thrill-ride.

When I first heard "When You Were Young", I expected Sam's Town to be one of the greatest records in the history of the world. (Had they not so blatantly ripped-off Springsteen, "When You Were Young", probably would have been one of the best songs The Killers ever recorded; with the obvious theft, it was without a doubt the best song The killers ever recorded.) Instead I got one of the best songs I had heard in a long time, and a bunch of other boring songs designed to adequately coexist with their previous material and generate record sales. They aren't necessarily awful, they just aren't good. They're boring, insincere, middle of the road, insubstantial tracks. In the end, 11 of the 12 songs on Sam's Town seem utterly lifeless. They're not Rock songs, they're jingles for toilet paper or cotton-balls or any other innocuous substance you can think of. Those songs aren't alive, they just exist. And for me, they would have been better off recording nothing at all.

What should have been a game changer turned into nothing more than a slightly better rendition of everything else. It wasn't unlistenable, there was just no reason to listen to it. It was sterile and manufactured. It was a record designed to sell rather than a record that sold a ton because of a brilliant design. The Killers had an opportunity to reinvent the wheel, but instead they chose to manufacture a new brand-name tire. They put out the same product virtually everyone else was, they just slapped a different name on it. The Killers didn't simply drop the ball, they cremated the fucker.

Weezer on the other hand did the exact opposite. (Okay, I guess I have to acknowledge that Weezer actually did the exact same thing The Killers did, they just did it one album later. I guess if I'm sticking with the literary analogies, this would make Weezer the Micheal Corleone of Indie-Rock. [Does that make The Retals Fredo?] Micheal tried to do the right thing, tried to avenge his father and legitimize the Corleone fortune even though, at least at first, he felt like he had no place wallowing in the mire of "The Family Business". Ultimately though, the desperation he felt as a result of the deaths of first his brother and then his father thrust him into a life that was too cavernous and alluring for him to reject. He started out sweet and ended up evil, but at least for my purposes, the most important thing to remember is that between his two poles, he was a hero.)

"The Blue Album" was recorded, "The Blue Album" was released, "The Blue Album" was huge. The success of Weezer gave Rivers Cuomo opportunity. As Weezer's primary songwriter, Rivers Cuomo certainly could've opted  for road #1 or #2. Both would have most certainly made him a buck and an even bigger household name. That's obvious, because their second self-titled album (their third record, "The Green Album"), sold over a million copies in the US and peeked at #4 on the Billboards even though it's only 28 minutes of I guess respectable but remarkably derivative songs ("Photograph" is a pretty solid song, and "Smile" is ultra rocking, but other than that, it was really more of the same from record #1 without any of the excitement of novelty.) But with Pinkerton, Rivers Cuomo decided to walk the path least traveled, that 3rd road, the "Nirvana Road".

Pinkerton's almost 15 years old. That amazes me, because as I played it tonight, it sounded fresh, exciting, relevant. Pinkerton sounds just as new and valid today as it did 14½ years ago. When Rivers Cuomo wrote the songs that collectively became Pinkerton, there were no aspirations of grandeur, no attempts at super-stardom in mind, he was just a man hemorrhaging, a man in need of catharsis, a man who deserved exorcism. The fact that everyone and their mothers knew he was the guy who sang with The Fonz didn't mend a lifetime of rejection, disappointment, and marginalization. That's why he wrote Pinkerton.

For Pinkerton, Rivers Cuomo skinned himself. He stripped away all airs and exposed himself; all of the dirty, painful, uncomfortable bits were laid out for mass consumption. For as much hook as "The Blue Album" had, as much as it rocked and crunched, it was never as honest, as sincere, as emotionally bare, or as brave as Pinkerton. RC hung it all out on the line with Pinkerton; he acknowledged the existence of the restless skeletons and then he threw open the closet door, exposing himself to the entire world.
And that's just conceptually, lyrically.

Musically, this record is about as adventurous and uninhibited as the band has ever been. The music courses with pain, disillusion, and cynicism. Rivers Cuomo's voice has never sounded anywhere near as passionate and brazen. The gritty distortion swallows almost every expertly written and delivered guitar riff. The performance given by Pat Wilson isn't simply adequate but downright savvy, and Matt Sharp's bass is not simply brilliant but quite possibly the backbone of the entire operation. It's how Pavement would have sounded if they wanted to be successful.

No meticulous overdubs, virtually no attention to aural detail; the band entered the studio with the songs, their instruments, and a handful of mics, recording the songs live from a single room to tape with virtually no production whatsoever. It was a minimalist approach to a massive undertaking with masterful results. It was important for the moment as well as the song to be captured. It was more important to chronicle the spirit of the endeavor than to manufacture a product for the consumer. The result is an unbridled and sincere record devoid of manicuring. There's no pretension or preconceived notion, only an organic essence to a crop of remarkably honest and unabashed songs. It's amazing. It's inspiring. If it's not genius, it's just a shade short of it. And 15 years later, it's just as essential to me as it was when I first heard it.   

Okay, so after Pinkerton, Weezer went all Micheal C. on us. After Pinkerton, Rivers Cuomo turned to the dark side (could Weezer also be Darth Vader? Would that make their tour bu the Death Star?) because he couldn't handle the commercial dejection of his soul-offering. So what? None of that matters. What does matter is that for one single, brief, but nonetheless shining moment, Rivers Cuomo was a hero. For that one moment, RC had enough heart to record Pinkerton. It's not a typical Weezer record, it's the quintessential one. Maybe Rivers Cuomo gave up greatness for solace. We still have Pinkerton, an single offering more chock full of valor than most artists can hope to achieve with their entire career. Do doubt, now Weezer is who Weezer "is now", but they once were so much more, and Pinkerton proves that.  And hey, they may no longer be "my" Weezer, but at least their not The Killers.

(*The word arthouse™ means pretentious and was coined by Matt McKenna)

1 comment:

  1. nice one. pinkerton is still one of my favorite albums to this day.