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One of the first things that catches your ear on Archers of Loaf’s third album, All the Nations Airports, is the new weapon in the band’s arsenala piano. Unlike their guitars, which they often abuse in their quest to fuse horrible noise with relatively straightforward punk/pop, the keyboard is approached almost cautiously. No budding Cecil Taylors here. Room is found in a wistful ballad, “Scenic Pastures,” for a few carefully placed chords from the instrument. Frontman Eric Bachmann sings “Chumming the Ocean,” a mournfully solemn song about a (Mob-induced?) drowning, to a rudimentary accompaniment. The album’s instrumental coda, “Bombs Away,” sounds like a cross between an elementary-school assembly and a barroom funeral in an old western.
Not, of course, that Airports points the way toward an eventual Tapestry. For the most part, the album relies on the same rude rhythms and questing, squealing guitars to shore up Bachmann’s alternately hollering, declaiming, and crooning vocals. If anything, the Chapel Hill, N.C., quartet’s first major-label long-player is less obviously accessible than Vee Vee, the 1995 release that marked a commercial breakthrough of sorts for the Archers, although anyone who listened to that masterwork of forceful ambivalence a lot will easily fall into step with this record.
But, you ask, does it really wail? It does. The barely controlled squeal of another instrumental, “Attack of the Killer Bees,” pays tribute to the Ventures’ “2,000 Pound Bee,” the obnoxious blast that beset the gravebound John Belushi’s mourners per the comedian’s instructions. “Vocal Shrapnel” lashes a severe lockstep to a sirenlike lead part, which echoes through the following “Bones of Her Hands,” an invitation to slam dance. Wondering whether an instrument is yet another indiscreet guitar or a damaged violin (an item deployed on Vee Vee’s “Underachievers March and Fight Song”) is a fairly common occurrence.
Once your ears are attuned to the Archers’ stylenot difficult if you ever got down to, say, Daydream Nationthe biggest challenge is parsing the coded cares of Bachmann’s lyrics. Sometimes he simply chips off pieces of the Big Picture, as on a rant against a “Powerwalker” (“Why don’t you just ride a bike?!”) on this year’s B-sides/collectibles hunt, The Speed of Cattle. But while an agitated sense of imminent destruction powers Airports, you’re never quite sure where Bachmann stands. Surely he’s not gleeful about the death of Santa Claus imagined in “Assassination on X-Mas Eve.” Other songs make it easy to figure Airports as a screed against flight; not only is the title track’s pilot a drunken bastard, but other tunes find their characters “Strangled by the Stereo Wire” and wasting their lives in a (car?) “Rental Sting.”
In the end, Bachmann seems flummoxed by shoddinessthe bleak relationships he bleeds over in “Scenic Pastures” and “Distance Comes in Droves,” the “complete decay” a friend suffers in “Vocal Shrapnel.” Like Pavement (a parallel frequently drawn by both Archers fans and foes) on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, though, he’s still fighting, still “scraping the walls in desperation.”
To hear Rivers Cuomo tell it, respect is one of the few things he can’t get. Of course, that’s a risk you run when your disposable-but-charming alt-rock band’s tour T-shirts are emblazoned with goofy slogans like “If it’s too loud, turn it down”even if the revered Archers of Loaf do open a bunch of the shows. On Pinkerton, the sequel to Weezer’s platinum debut, avenging nerd Cuomo seems bent on disproving the old saw about how the guys who never, um, do it are the guys who talk about doing it the most. From the opening lines of the first song, Cuomo proclaims that life during stardom is one big one-night-stand after another. Not that he’s all that happy about it, mind you; naturally, he’s “Tired of Sex” and wants to be, y’know, making love.
Pinkerton, which follows a success that peaked with the saturation MTV play of “Buddy Holly,” a hooky celebration of geek love, bears all the marks of a second album by a suddenly big modern-rock act in the ’90s. While Weezer hasn’t gone quite as far as British alternative pariahs Bush, whose forthcoming disc is produced by Steve Albini, Pinkerton’s sound is immediately, and self-consciously, evocative of Albini’s work on Nirvana’s In Utero. New-wavey hard pop is still Weezer’s cornerstone, but here the riffs are drenched in feedback, the guitar solos bent a little more toward chaos.
The surface similarities between Nirvana’s masterwork and Pinkerton don’t end there; Cuomo, like Cobain, is righteously ambivalent about his new superstar status. But where Cobain blew out his angst in complex songs that also referenced his turbulent marriage and dwindling lust for life in general, Cuomo is rarely able to stop strutting his unbecoming arrogance in the Seventeen-magazine mirror. It may be unsporting to hoist a band as simply pleasurable as this one can be on the petard of its lyrics, but what the hell. Last time out, Cuomo’s bemusement resulted in painful nuggets like “Say It Ain’t So” (about an alcoholic dad) and “In the Garage” (one of a number of paeans to outsiderdom), and he came off genuinely funny, not gauche, when wondering “What’s with these homies dissin’ my girl?” On Pinkerton, though, he’s full of cringe-inducers like “Goddamn you half-Japanese girls” (an attempt at endearment) and wonderment that “when I think I’ve found a good old-fashioned girl,” she turns out to be a lesbian. “Everyone’s a little queer/ Why can’t she be a little straight?” he moans.
As the first nine of Pinkerton’s 10 songs blast, it’s possible to ignore Cuomo’s crude blurts and concentrate on the hooky surges. The final number, “Butterfly,” is a different matter, since he performs it as a solo acoustic ballad, every sigh right up front. “I’m a dog,” he concedes in this whine about fucking and being forgotten, but “you’re a bitch,” before the excruciating anti-melodic strum threatens to veer into “Rocky Raccoon.” With all the “sex-yoo-all” griping going on on Pinkerton, it may be time for Cuomo to rename his band. Is “The Dickies” still taken? After all, it’d fit his new lyrical perspective in more ways than one.CP