Vic, March 19
Metro, March 21
I've been hearing Q101 lately: little bursts around town in friends' cars and a couple of extended bouts while attempting to drown out the horrific sound of a dentist's drill on recent visits. During these past few weeks of sudden immersion in the sounds of commercially sanctioned "alternative rock," a few persistent questions keep arising. What the hell is that guy from Bush talking about when he sings "There's no sex in your violence" in that song "Everything's Zen," which seems to get an hourly airing on Q101? And more important, even if you accept that whatever passes for "alternative" these days has growing mainstream power, how do you explain the increasing number of blatantly bubblegum staples on alternative radio? If "alternative" is supposed to mean different from Top 40, what's with all the lightweight teen fodder? Oasis, a quintet from Manchester, and Weezer, a quartet from LA, are two of Q101's current faves, receiving incessant airplay and nauseating DJ pushes, yet despite their inclusion within the alternative ranks, they serve as perfect music industry products: appealing, marketable, disposable.
Oasis extend a long line of British pop bands possessing built-in obsolescence. Most of the band's press has revolved around the volatile relationship between autocrat Noel Gallagher, who plays lead guitar, writes and arranges all the songs, and sings backup vocals, and the lead singer, his pretty-boy brother Liam, who follows Noel's instructions, placing the snarl-laden whine of John Lydon within classically structured pop tunes. Big deal, brothers always fight. The band's debut album Definitely Maybe (Epic) does manage to deliver some fairly striking straight-up pop goods. A composite sketch of British guitar pop from the Beatles through early glam rock, Oasis creatively recycle any number of riffs and melody lines--although there's nothing creative about the blatant rip-off of T. Rex's "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" on "Cigarettes & Alcohol." Most of Gallagher's hook-laden tunes fixate on a limited number of topics; usually the tedious triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. The words either express boredom ("It's a crazy situation / But all I need are cigarettes and alcohol") or revel in stupidity ("I know a girl named Elsa / She's into Alka-Seltzer").
A sold-out performance at the Vic a few weeks back offered no evidence that the band has any more depth than the album reveals. Poised and unmoving under fixed spotlights, Oasis ran through songs from the album and barely broke a sweat. Apparently Noel's concern with control doesn't extend to choreography. Liam was the only one to flop around a bit; after crooning his way through his assigned part, he'd trundle back to the drum riser, take a seat, quaff some bottled water, and wait for brother Noel's guitar solo, reproduced by the numbers from the album. Then he'd stumble back to the microphone and finish the song. Sometimes he'd even rattle a star-shaped tambourine. Fans of the album weren't disappointed, as the band took virtually no liberties with any arrangement or even the level of intensity of any song. Opening with the minor hit "Rock 'n' Roll Star," Oasis grooved on the tune's quasi-psychedelic ending, which found Liam repeating, "It's just rock 'n' roll," an apt description for the rather dull cakewalk. A rendition of the band's finest tune, the current hit "Live Forever," a bland mechanical re-creation, totally failed to push the song's fiery soul to its fullest explosive potential. An exception was the band's closing number, a clunky but hard-rocking cover of the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus," but an extended, extraneous noodly guitar noise from Noel, proving he's barely a competent guitarist, sank the tune like a stone. Like a good bubblegum band Oasis played the hits as the kids like to hear them, and the one time they veered off-course they foundered miserably. By this time next year another British band will have largely eradicated the memories of Oasis's pleasant tunes.
Weezer don't have the traditional pop smarts of Noel Gallagher, but they're ultimately a more complicated band, playing sounds that fit into the indie rock mold somewhere between the disinterested style of Pavement and the nothing-else-to-do-but-rock passion of Superchunk--only distilled and polished up a bit. Although lead singer Rivers Cuomo and Weezer attempt Beach Boys-ish three-part harmonies, they actually sound closer to Freddie Mercury and Queen. Their idiosyncrasies lie more in their presentation than their music. The band has a 70s obsession but it receives no musical manifestation; rather, it's in the props (a huge light-encrusted W, modeled after the Van Halen "VH" symbol), videos (the Happy Days setting for "Buddy Holly"), and lyrics (the repeated Kiss references in "In the Garage"). All this ironic nostalgia seems to work, even though most of Weezer's audience can barely recall the 80s.
The most striking facet of Weezer's recent set at the Metro was its glaring wholesomeness. Cuomo came out taking bites of an apple and dressed in khakis, a blue oxford cloth shirt, and a green cardigan. His clean-cut look and the mix, which favored vocals over instruments with markedly quiet results, only reinforces Weezer's gee-whiz goodness. The most radical element seems to be ever-changing hair colors; otherwise there's nothing to stop them from being alternative rock's Pat Boone.
But Weezer's not as naive as their geeky image suggests. They poke fun at their whiteness by appropriating hip hop lingo in the opening lines of the sing-songy "Buddy Holly" ("What's with these homeys dissin' my girl / Why do they gotta front?"). And more self-mockery laces "In the Garage," an introspective tune that takes plenty of jabs at the band's own towering artistic insignificance ("I got electric guitar / I play my stupid songs / I write these stupid words / And I love every one").
Weezer, like the Monkees, are a bit of a media creation: the bulk of their success has been propelled by the cleverness of their videos rather than the strength of their music. The Metro was packed with adolescents and their chaperones. It was odd to hear the Metro din pierced by girlish screams and even odder that the girls were screaming for a rock star who was pretending not to be one. Like Oasis, Weezer offered no variation from its debut album (wouldn't want to confuse the young 'uns).
Nobody thinks pop music has to be smart, as some of the music's greatest pleasures have been constructed upon stupidity, from "Louie Louie" to "Whoot, There It Is." But the kids plopping down 15 bucks for tickets and another 20 or 30 on T-shirts--who think they're consuming an alternative to more mainstream, less hip, fare--are being misled. There's no reason why Oasis and Weezer shouldn't be popular, but they're no different from what's been blared on Top 40 radio for years. If you feel too old to understand what the big deal is, don't worry; as the current Q101 slogan declares, "This is not for you."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Marty Perez.