Weezer, Andrew Bird, Pet Shop Boys and More Music Reviews

Plus, get reviews of albums by Andrew Bird, Pet Shop Boys, and others.

quicklist: 1 title: Weezer’s “Weezer” (The White Album) **** text: There’s a vein of uncertainty when you approach a new Weezer record. Oftentimes you never know what version of the band you are going to get. Their first self-titled record (also known as “The Blue Album”) and its follow-up, “Pinkerton,” are both considered classics by many fans. Later albums like “Make Believe,” “Raditude” and “Hurley” are rightfully considered half-baked disasters.

As many know, while 1996’s “Pinkerton” is now justifiably praised, it didn’t go over well at the time of its release. With Rivers Cuomo’s most frank and open lyrics to date, that album’s perceived failure perhaps caused his lyrics to become extremely basic on the albums that followed. It was as if Cuomo feared opening himself up again. This was a surprising move considering the fact that following the release of “Pinkerton,” Cuomo went back to college and earned his B.A. in English.

I must admit, I didn’t love “Thank God For Girls,” the first time I heard it. That might have had something to do with the song’s video which showed a guy stuffing his face with a cannoli in the most grotesque way possible. But the song itself serves as one of the album’s anchors, showcasing some of Cuomo’s most playfully random lyrics to date. He sounds like he is having fun and not writing some sort of demented nursery rhyme, which was the way Weezer’s music sounded at the band’s lowest point.

“King Of The World” is wonderfully anthemic, while “L.A. Girlz” is a song I feel like I should dislike for its admittedly lame, generic title but I don’t because of its sweeping, winning refrain. “California Kids” seems rooted in the same waters that brought us “Surf Wax America” and “Do You Wanna Get High?” is more successful than the “Make Believe” disaster, “We Are All On Drugs.”

Weezer have delivered here a sunny, California record with noticeable tuneful bite and a keen sense of humor. “California Kids” seems to hint at the state’s therapeutic qualities leading to self-redemption and a new start. Perhaps this song should be adopted by the California Tourism Bureau.

Over the last 22 years, the band’s output has been rather uneven. Thus, this album ends up being one of their most solid records to date, only getting better on repeated listens. Considering this is their second respectable album in a row (after following two duds) Weezer are definitely on the right track back to where they belong. This album should be seen in many ways as a very welcome return to form.

Focus Tracks:

“California Kids” The chugging guitars and the anthemic chorus of this track show Weezer working a signature sound. Even the lullaby-style opening is probably meant to bring back memories of classic tracks like “Pink Triangle” and (to a lesser extent) “In The Garage.”

“Endless Bummer” This mostly acoustic track ends the set. It’s a catchy song about a never-ending summer, perhaps at camp. It’s an admittedly strange offering from a band whose members are mostly in the mid-forties, but it definitely hits all the right places. Cuomo sings, “Kumbaya makes me get violent. / I just want this summer to end,” adding one last great joke before the band delivers a surprisingly powerful rock assault. This serves as the perfect close to this collection. “The White Album” may be the exact album Weezer needed to release at this point.

quicklist: 2 title: Andrew Bird’s “Are You Serious” **** text: On his eleventh album, classically-trained violinist Andrew Bird surrounds himself with an all-star band including Blake Mills, vocalist Moses Sumney and one-time Michael Penn-associate Patrick Warren. ”Are You Serious” also provides some of the boldest pieces of music that Bird has ever released. These are smartly written songs prone to unexpected left turns but at the same time, this is a warmly accessible record. The songs are full of intricate details but you will find yourself willing to go along wherever the ride takes you.

Bird has always impressed but on this album he has seemingly stepped up his game, delivering indie-rock with a classic-songsmith’s wit. “Valleys Of The Young” feels like it is constantly pushing something forward and the wonderful Fiona Apple-duet “Left Handed Kisses” seems to be delivered in movements, but these shifts only make this album all the more exciting and spontaneous. The opening seconds of the title track sound like it should be part of the score to “The Royal Tenenbaums” before setting off into something that kind of sounds like it could’ve been sung by Francoise Hardy.

What “Are You Serious” offers is a wide variety of styles mixed in a tightly created collection. Bird plays classically-tinged cabaret music with a worldly sense of charm. His words are quotably poetic and yet at the same time, he isn’t afraid to let things rock out from time to time. The vaguely South African sound of “The New Saint Jude” plays like it works off an old tradition and yet there is an unhinged quality to the guitar textures, giving the track an unexpected flare.

“Are You Serious” is stellar offering and it is the kind of multi-textured record that takes risks and succeeds. This is one of Andrew Bird’s brightest and most appealing albums to date.

Focus Tracks:

“Left Handed Kisses” (Featuring Fiona Apple) If Bird has a fitting duet partner, it is Fiona Apple. Both performers have a fitting cult-following and both favor complex, nuanced arrangements. This song works in several parts, being book-ended by beginning and ending sections that mirror each other. If you get a chance, check out the song’s powerful (and slightly silly) video, which reaches its peak at its end when Bird and Apple perform the last part of the song live for the cameras. This is the union of two immense talents. It deserves airplay and it deserves to be a hit.

“The New Saint Jude” This Paul Simon-esque rocker, churns and sways and yet remains strikingly delicate at the same time.

“Capsized” This song sets the album off perfectly, blending a classical flair with a funk-driven backdrop. At points it has musical vibe similar to Bill Withers’ “Use Me.”

quicklist: 3 title: Pet Shop Boys’ “Super” ***1/2 text: It has been 30 years since The Pet Shop Boys made their debut and released the classic single “West End Girls.” Like New Order, The Pet Shop Boys are one of the electronic-leaning groups of the eighties that nearly effortlessly have evolved with the electronic sounds of the times. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have remained one of the most reliable acts in modern club music. It helps that at 61, Tennant’s voice still has every bit of the boyish quality that it had in the eighties.

“Super” at times feels like a sarcastic and funny, tongue-in-cheek record. “Groovy,” in particular is a ridiculous (and ridiculously fun) track with its over-the-top crowd-cheering and Tennant’s chorus of “Look at me! / I’m just so groovy!” This album at times feels like it is both celebrating and slightly lampooning club culture. The chilled tone of “The Dictator Decides” is a dark, nearly whispered dance-pop track about global warfare, whereas “The Pop Kids” has a hint of an origin story.

“Super” sometimes plays like a collection of character-studies, often with a theatrical, almost Broadway-ready sense of emphasis, but it never loses the club-bound pound. While “Pazzo!” for instance differs from this formula, it offers up a groove that verges on a near-“trance” sense of relentlessness. “Inner Sanctum,” on the other hand has a chilled “house” quality. All along, there is a bright glitziness to this record as if these songs are reflections on both the shiny elements and accompanied narcissism associated with fame. As the album closes, there is a sense of tension and breakdown on both “Sad Robot World” and the achingly tense (but tremendously catchy) “Say It To Me.”

“Super” is an unapologetic club record that revels both in a celebratory energy and its own inherent cheesiness. Again, there is something almost cartoon-like about the way Tennant and Lowe are tackling these often dense electronic numbers, but it is all in good fun.

Focus Tracks:

“Say It To Me” This is a bonafide club hit waiting to happen while Tennant relentlessly pleads, “Tell me what you want from me!” It mixes a club-ready beat with an appealing pop hook. Honestly, this really deserves “Top 40” radio spins.

“Undertow” Similarly, this is another pop-driven dance-pop track with a driving beat. The Pet Shop Boys definitely still possess some considerable chops when it comes to hooks.

“Sad Robot World” On an icy electronic track, Tennant and Lowe somehow bring a kind of empathy to a story about robots working haplessly to please human whims. It is a surprisingly tender and poignant moment.

quicklist: 4 title: Cheap Trick’s “Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello” ** text: Cheap Trick have a huge fan base and there’s a certain part of the seventies that was epitomized by their omnipresent hit, “I Want You To Want Me.” Similarly, a decade later, they hit the upper reaches of the charts once again with the beautiful ballad, “The Flame.”

“Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello” is the band’s first album in seven years and it tries very hard to recapture their hard-edged seventies peak. The problem is that is has only a bit of the flavor and very little of the substance, so essentially what we have here is a shell of a record. The production, itself, too is a tad over-compressed giving the album a suffocated feel. It’s as if someone decided the album needed to be “BIG” but drowned the hooks. Robin Zander’s voice is multi-layered with ultra-tightness on “No Direction Home.” Given a different mix, this song could have recalled the magic the band was trying to summon and perhaps some Big Star-style greatness it aims to grasp. In its current state, it is a bit drowned.

“Do You Believe Me?” has one of the most interesting structures on the record, but again, the production does it in. It doesn’t help that the band has an over-the-top energy that at times would put Spinal Tap to shame. This is meant to be a loud, rollicking rock record. It showcases the kind of display that allowed Cheap Trick to fit in so well with the sub-par glam-driven hair-bands back in the eighties. This song’s solo devolves into noise.

“Blood Red Lips” is some awkward, ham-fisted rock anchored by a troubling falsetto. “Sing My Blues Away” has a few redeeming qualities but it ends up being forgettable. This album ultimately just sounds like the band fighting with their own sound and struggling to be heard. It’s a battle of power over substance. It doesn’t help that the songs themselves just don’t distinguish themselves.

Cheap Trick is perhaps a better band than this album shows. Because this album is meant to be turned up to 15, much of the magic is lost in the execution, giving “Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello” a somewhat empty feeling. Too often, this is generic rock at its most hackneyed and you can tell that that wasn’t the band’s intention. It’s sad because Zander can still howl quite effectively and Rick Nielsen can still shred. The band is working hard, but this record just doesn’t deliver due to weak material. Perhaps the 2010 departure of drummer Bun E. Carlos made the group lose a touch of their cohesion.

While it is nice to know Cheap Trick are still making records, this record really doesn’t impress. It wants to bring the party but it merely brings the noise… and not in the good way. Sadly, there is nothing close to indelible here. Considering later this week, the band is about to be put into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, this album doesn’t deliver the punch it should.

Focus Tracks:

“When I Wake Up Tomorrow” This is a semi-decent mid-tempo number that turns down the band’s need to “ROCK!!!!” The focus instead is on the song’s melody. A larger percentage of the album should have been delivered with this kind of attention to detail.

“Do You Believe Me?” Before it erupts into a rather aimless and really noisy solo and becomes semi-cacophonous, this song gives a glimpse of how this song actually has some bite and Robin Zander is spitting bile behind the mic. With a different arrangement, this song could have been better. Nevertheless, it serves as an album highlight.

“The In Crowd” In the eighties, Cheap Trick scored a hit and got some significant MTV play with a cover of Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel.” Interestingly here, it is another cover that turns out to be a highlight on this record. They handle the Billy Page-penned Dobie Gray hit, “The In Crowd” with a rather subdued approach when compared with the rest of the record.

quicklist: 5 title: Charles Bradley’s “Changes” ***1/2 text: Charles Bradley is a 67-year old soul singer who spent most of his musical career impersonating James Brown under the name Black Velvet. In 2011, he made a striking debut under his own name with the fantastic, “No Time For Dreaming.” The fact that that album came hand-in-hand with Bradley’s radical reimagining of Nirvana’s “Stay Away” that appeared on “Spin” magazine’s “Nevermind” tribute around the same time, cemented Bradley as a new talent to watch. His second album, “Victim Of Love” dropped in 2013 and also showcased his highly emotional vocal style well.

“Changes” is his third offering and like previous albums, this record finds him most-often backed by the Dap-Kings-associated spin-off group, The Menahan Street Band. Again, like the rest of his output, from the beginning, there is nothing about this record that indicates it was made in 2016. It has a vintage sixties sound. This album sounds like the work of analog-era pros. The fact that Bradley can wail like Otis Reading and scream as if his soul was being ripped out of his body in the process helps add to this feeling.

The shuffling funk of “Ain’t It A Sin” delivers some awesome drive and Bradley puts his years of James Brown-impersonating to good use on “Good To Be Back Home.” “Nobody But You” nicely integrates the hook-melody of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” into its horn section, and the title track believe it or not is an unlikely (and highly successful) cover of the Black Sabbath classic.

From the beginning of the record with Bradley’s spoken-word-driven opening rendition of “God Bless America,” there’s kind of an “aw gee” sense of innocence. He introduces himself like Archie Bell & The Drells did on their classic, “Tighten Up.” This is a man who frequently reminds us that the years before he got famous were unspeakably difficult and while there is sadness that often surfaces in his music, he is still rightfully making his victory lap, having survived various kinds of adversity.

“Things We Do For Love” is some bright doo-wop, while “Crazy For Your Love” puts his emotional, nearly crying singing style to work on a love ballad.

While this album doesn’t deliver the kind of awe-striking feeling of his debut, it still shows Bradley to be a very consistent performer. If you enjoyed his previous two records, you’ll enjoy this one as well. It took Bradley much longer than it should have to achieve fame. Hopefully he can make up for lost time and release a stack more of these albums. Knowing his story, you can’t help but be happy for his success.

Focus Tracks:

“Ain’t Gonna Give It Up” With a skuzzy seventies funk groove complete with a laser-beam synth and a group of background singers, this jam is packed with vintage cool. It’s hard to listen to this track without adopting a strut in your step.

“Good To Be Back Home” The ghost of James Brown is strong in this workout and Bradley has a powerful yell. The fact that this more party-ready side of him is emerging more here than on his other two sets must mean he is getting happier, which is good to hear.

“Changes” Never would I have thought Bradley and Ozzy could handle the same material, but Bradley nails this cover, giving the song the emotional heft it demands.

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