[7 July 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
As a music fan, Japan has always baffled me. How can a series of Pacific islands, with a population less than half of America’s and a surface area that just barely covers the eastern seaboard of the United States, be so musically omnivorous? As artists, they are as creative and vibrant as any other developed country. But as consumers, there doesn’t seem to be anything they don’t like. Even if a particular musical genre is flagging in the States, Japan will pick up the slack in sales and in adoration. Artists from the west gladly tap into this. Radiohead and Matthew Sweet produced albums just for the Japanese market, Brian May suggested “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)” to Queen’s beloved fanbase from the Land of the Rising Sun, and Tom Waits once boasted that he was “Big in Japan”. In other words, this love is a two-way street. Fans of Weezer and/or Allister were probably not surprised by the news of the two frontmen teaming up to make a J-pop album. Scott Murphy’s band enjoyed a great deal of momentum between 2004 and 2006 thanks to their generous Japanese fanbase. And even if you lost all sense of hearing, one glance at the artwork of Weezer’s Pinkerton and The Lion and the Witch makes clear Rivers Cuomo’s fascination with Japanese culture. After some arranged meetings followed up by some brushing up on the language, Scott Murphy and Rivers Cuomo have finally made their self-titled J-pop album available on iTunes worldwide. So how does it sound? It sounds like a neutered version of both bands sung in Japanese, that’s how it sounds.
To be fair, a foray into J-pop is probably not a prime opportunity for experimentation when you are out of your linguistic element. But any invitation to think outside the box should be embraced when your songwriting is in a rut. The career trajectory of Weezer Mach 2 have given fans much to take in and, possibly, commiserate over. And for those disgruntled with Rivers Cuomo’s lyrics over the past dozen years or so, you can thank your lucky stars for this language barrier. The lyrics, predominantly in Japanese, do lapse back into English only on occasion. Sometimes it’s an entire chorus, other times just part of a chorus. And once in a while, you’ll catch a glimpse of just one word in English at the end of a line, such as “waterslide”, “diary” and something that sounds like “rock star”. And choruses like “I freakin’ love my life / it’s turnin’ out just right / it’s a party every night” insure that the verses probably don’t run much deeper than that. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily, but I am puzzled by the chorus to the single “Homely Girl”, which goes “I love, love, love my homely girl / she just knocks me to the ground”. Did the power of her homeliness metaphorically knock the guy out? Or did she literally knock him to the floor? If so, where’s the love in that? Perhaps it translates better into Japanese.
Musically, Scott & Rivers (also known as スコット と リバース) alternates between decaffeinated power-pop and kitchy top-40 fluff. Cuomo claimed to have cracked the code for the perfect song while stewing in a self-imposed exile after Pinkerton, and the songs on Scott & Rivers are not exempt from the same pitfalls that come with the formula; verses, choruses, bridges, no spontaneity. About the most spontaneous instrument here is Murphy’s voice, who makes up for his thin timbre with the occasional gravely shout. Cuomo’s throat may have more power behind it, but his delivery style still runs static. And even in Weezer’s most generic moments, you could almost always count on Rivers Cuomo’s guitar to puncture the song—if not in tonal content, then at least in sound. On Scott & Rivers, the electric guitar is pretty much a rhythm instrument. Of the two or so guitar solos found here, one actually scorches (“Okashiiyatsu”/”おかしいやつ”). The one for “I Need Somebody”, however, could have been dialed up by any teenager on your street.
The one component of Scott & Rivers that might surprise Weezer and Allister fans is how a handful of tracks come across as so saccharine. The tween beats that propel track six, “終わりのないこの詩//Tooku Hanaretemo”, is unrecognizable pap to anyone who follows either band. So all things considered, there’s little to make one hope that this project will bloom into more than just a curiosity for the two songwriters. It’s just so difficult to imagine this being done more than once.