Rivers delivers by embracing the past

If Rivers Cuomo had to pick a way to describe his fans, he’d probably go with “little bitches.”

At least, that’s what he called them in an interview with Guitar World Magazine in 2002, upon the release of Weezer’s fourth album, “Maladroit.” Cuomo and his band have always had a strange relationship with their diehard fan base, a stock of faithful holdovers from Weezer’s career-defining early work (1994’s “Blue Album” and 1996’s “Pinkerton”) that has since slowly dwindled with each officially released disappointment. On the eve of Weezer’s most recent, 2005’s “Make Believe,” drummer Pat Wilson neatly synopsized the paradox: “Basically, you have to hate Weezer to be a true fan.”

While the rest of the band has probably remained complacent with the commercial success and artistic failings of their past three studio albums, Cuomo has displayed a renewed interest in the golden years of his songcraft. Case in point: the recent release of “Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo,” a compendium that excavates eighteen of his previously unreleased demos from the past fifteen years. Handpicked by the author himself, the disc’s rough gems find the bespectacled recluse playing the lion’s share of the instruments through a patchwork of varying sonic fidelity and performance quality; for those willing to sift through the occasionally slack production, however, it provides lucid insight into Cuomo’s artistic evolution and eventual regression.

Weezer’s past three albums have been an exercise in normalcy, and the early experiments found on “Alone” come as a welcome respite. The leftovers from 1995’s abandoned space rock drama “Songs From The Blackhole” are the most vital and strange, from the spiraling vocal melody lines of triumphant rocker “Blast Off!” (replete with robot vocoder) to operatic transitional pieces like “Who You Callin’ Bitch?” and “Dude, We’re Finally Landing.” Also noteworthy is his gleefully erratic cover of Ice Cube’s “The Bomb,” which cops some early Beastie Boys machine-gun rapping for a bit of comic relief, and “Lemonade,” a circular slab of the lo-fi fuzz rock that Guided By Voices would later popularize with their seminal “Alien Lanes” album.

Most successful, though, is when Cuomo embraces his true gift: proving it’s still possible to craft modern songs that reach the celestial heights of the fabled ’60s guitar pop Valhalla. 1995’s “Longtime Sunshine” sounds like the bipolar, balladic piano inverse of George Harrison’s finest achievement (“Here Comes The Sun,” for the record), and 1997’s spare “Lover In The Snow” takes the “Pet Sounds” approach to instrumental minimalism and applies it to thickly distorted stop-start guitar, a lonely handclap tambourine and Wilsonian vocal harmony – the kind of song that Spoon wishes they could pen. Both are the simplest entries in the “Alone” collection (and by extension, the Weezer canon as a whole), and the most compelling evidence for Cuomo’s former genius.

Initially intended “for the fans,” the record’s tracklist reflects who that audience really is: only three of the eighteen tracks come from after the turn of the millennium, as if Cuomo is consciously avoiding the quagmires and hang-ups of post-classic Weezer. One finds Cuomo backed by Canadian contemporaries Sloan for a satisfyingly raucous take on Dion’s “Little Diane,” providing one of his most energetic and unhinged vocal performances since 1996. “Make Believe” leftover “I Was Made For You” scorches anything from the album it failed to make, but the pretty guitar lines and vocal melodies are compromised by the cumbersome middle school poetry of Cuomo’s lazy lyrics. Worst of all is “This Is The Way,” a horrifying foray into R&B for which Cuomo admits to stealing the progression from Mario’s 2004 hit “Let Me Love You.” It’s a moment of gloriously ambiguous intentions, raising the most questions of sincerity and self-parody since R. Kelly found himself struggling with his closet door. To add insult to (vaguely comical) injury, Cuomo details in the liner notes how the song very nearly made Weezer’s upcoming sixth album, forecasting yet another shameless defecation on what was once a pristine and powerful legacy.

Then again, you never know: “Alone” marks Cuomo’s greatest and most direct embrace of his wilted salad days. Not only that, Cuomo has been preparing a scrapbook of the two years that preceded Weezer’s classic “Blue Album,” and he is apparently already in talks to make this release the first in an ongoing series of demo compilations. Either way, “Alone” stands as the most successful entry in his discography since 1996. The songs found herein may be old clippings from lost and yellowed papers, but this is old news worth celebrating like the headlines of tomorrow.

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