Weezer“Weezer"(DGC/Interscope)* * * 1/2
THE PAIRING of Weezer and producer Rick Rubin seemed like a no-brainer, but their first issue, 2005’s “Make Believe,” lacked the hoped-for chemistry between L.A.'s nerd-rock kings and a studio guru who has brought out the best in Johnny Cash, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond.
Here’s to hanging in there. Though it tails off toward the end, the second Weezer-Rubin collaboration (and the band’s third self-titled album, out June 3) is a rush, starting with a sustained, four-song soliloquy on pop music’s allure.
“I’m gonna be a rock star and you are gonna bear with me / Cuz I can’t work a job like any other slob,” Rivers Cuomo sings in “Troublemaker,” portraying an absurdly confident musician. In the similarly heavy-riffing “Pork and Beans,” he trumpets his independence and scoffs at lesser artists, those careerists who dream of hooking up with Timbaland to record a hit.
Rivers doesn’t make apologies for his sometimes crass characters, nor does he judge them. He forms them and animates them, then lets you deal with them. But all that attitude disappears with the onset of “Heart Songs,” a musical autobiography that describes a lifetime of listening, from ABBA and Debbie Gibson to Iron Maiden and Nirvana albums, and ultimately to the singer’s own induction into the fraternity of record makers.
The next two songs vary the theme but don’t let up as they capture, in turn, the bravado of youth and the appeal of imagination over day-to-day drudgery. Both “Everybody Gets Dangerous” and “Dreamin’ ” extend the album’s audaciously dynamic sound. The music on “Weezer” is marked by constant surprise in the structures and textures, which combine the crunch of Cuomo’s beloved KISS with a Who-like urgency and wit and the Beach Boys’ celestial pop epiphanies.
The album’s slip into a stretch of three uneventful songs is puzzling, but Weezer recovers for “The Angel and the One,” which ends this march through the material plane on a note of spiritual transcendence.
A change, maybe, but predictable
Jewel“Perfectly Clear"Valory Music* * 1/2
THE JEWEL sound is an elusive concept. She’s gone from yodeling rustic and ‘90s alt-rock troubadour to pop princess and Day-Glo dance-hall queen, alternating boots and denim with movie star couture. The charm of her early rough edges is long gone, but you could often still hear something of the ambitious young ranch kid from Alaska amid the high-end beats and genres, as she tried out new sounds and scenes, still looking for something to match the effect of her multi-platinum debut from 1994.
Jewel changes once again on “Perfectly Clear.” It’s not her only album to be recorded in Nashville, but it is the first to absolutely sound like it, fully embracing the sound of mainstream country, where the voices are twangy and the musicianship can be as impeccable as it is unsurprising. It begins with “Stronger Woman,” a tough-gal manifesto at the end of a bad romance, with slices of pedal-steel placed exactly where you might expect and nowhere else.
She co-produced with John Rich of Big & Rich for a sound aimed directly at the contemporary country charts. There is little hint of her past as a modern folk-rock singer, but she does hold on to a certain genuineness as a lyricist of songs of love and self-determination. (Some of the words were written when she was still 18.) And she connects deeply with the classic-style C&W tear-jerker of “Anyone but You,” a formula that works just as it should.
But “ ‘Till It Feels Like Cheating” is standard-issue country cliché, and the singer gets lost there. She is better served by the subtle acoustic backing of “Love Is a Garden,” a recording that’s still slick but reveals real emotion that cuts closer to the bone.
By the closing title song, Jewel drops the C&W affectations entirely from her voice, singing it like a straight-ahead romantic ballad. It’s a refreshing moment, her best one here, and maybe captures a glimpse of the real sound of Jewel.
Return to a meat and potatoes diet
Gavin Rossdale“Wanderlust"(Interscope)* * *
IT’S NO secret that Gavin Rossdale’s previous album -- the 2005 debut by his short-lived band Institute -- didn’t sell like the hot cakes Rossdale used to peddle with his late-'90s post-grunge act Bush. (According to Nielsen SoundScan, “Distort Yourself” has moved only 54,000 copies to date -- a far cry from the multi-platinum sales of Bush’s “Sixteen Stone.”)
Iffy lyrics aside, “Wanderlust” finds Rossdale circling back to the heavy pop he does best. After indulging his (relatively) experimental streak with Institute’s noisy rock, he’s once again hungry for meat and potatoes -- an appetite Rossdale shares with the tens of millions of " American Idol” viewers who just voted David Cook into office.
Nothing here is complicated or profound; melodies go where you expect them to, while dynamics follow the quiet-loud pattern Nirvana turned into a recipe. Yet there’s an appealing guilelessness to Rossdale’s writing that gives the predictable a whiff of universality.
Long-told story gets a new spin
The VirginsAtlantic Records* * *
ONE OF rock’s founding myths involves the poor boy who wages class war by stealing the honor of the privileged girl. The story was cast in dirty guitar riffs by the art school brats who took over in the 1960s -- the socialite-deflowering Rolling Stones led the pack -- but it’s lingered on, especially in New York City, where people like to think the erasure of class lines is only a subway encounter away.
The debut album by downtown Manhattan’s latest “it” band, the Virgins, is basically an art project exploring this subject. Singer and main songwriter Donald Cumming grew up the son of a SoHo liquor store owner, while shoplifting Versace in Miami at 16 and went on to star in photographer Ryan McGinley’s Whitney museum-worthy shots of decadent club kids.
Cumming uses a hung-over drawl to relate his attempts to bed trophy dates while his band follows the musical thread that runs from the Stones to the Velvets and the Stooges to 1970s punk, into 1980s new wave and on to 1990s New York rock revivalism. Ryan McGinley’s
Like McGinley’s semi-staged photos, which meld hippie utopianism with blog-style exhibitionism, Cumming’s songs feel immediate despite being relentlessly referential. Titles like “Rich Girls,” “One Week of Danger” and “She’s Expensive” give away the plot. Bassist Nick Zarin-Ackerman and guitarist Wade Oates (he’s a model too) quote wildly from a shuffled playlist of funk, hip-hop and every kind of punk that’s not emo or hard core.
Already embraced as the house band on “Gossip Girl,” the Virgins assist would-be debs and playboys eager to put their stamp on familiar transgressions. Cumming might still be a petty thief -- of sounds and ideas now, not clothes -- but he clutches at this material as if he invented it, and the band’s boldness is hard to resist.