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By John Brodeur

Another summer is almost gone, and with it a seemingly light load of what we like to call “summer jams.” Eminem ruled the album charts for the last two months, but it would be hard to say any of his singles were of the breezy pop variety that’s usually required for such a definitive track. Cee-Lo Green’s late entry, “Fuck You,” is exactly that kind of single, but it’s disqualified on account of its wicked profane streak—without radio play it won’t reach the required level of car-stereo ubiquity—and its late-August debut. (The kinder, gentler version, “Forget You,” comes across as ball-less in comparison.) Tweeter extraordinaire Kanye West is poised to dominate the fall with one or all of his recent “leaked” tracks, but those won’t have any real terrestrial impact until the album drops, whenever it drops. And Mike Posner—well, I’m not even going to get into that crap.

That puts the onus on the ladies, and with Ke$ha’s latest single (“Take It Off”) just now on the rise, and Lady Gaga scoring more points for her freaky-ass videos than her music (also, “Alejandro” might have been a bit too odd for cultural dominance in the states), the mantle is seemingly up for grabs.

So . . . Katy Perry? Oh well, OK.

With two singles in the current Billboard Top 10, including the summer’s biggest hit (“California Gurls”), Perry has had a stranglehold on the pop charts, if not pop-culture, for much of the last 12 weeks. And with its club-friendly BPM, a vocoder lick nicked from 2Pac, an unintentionally(?) borrowed Ke$ha hook, and a title that straight-up cannibalizes the Beach Boys’ fun-in-the-sun evergreen, “Gurls” really does nail the zeitgeist of 2010 pop music. (Also: Snoop Dogg’s on it.) Frankensteined to laquered-stiff perfection by the production Holy Trinity of Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and Benny Blanco, “California Gurls” is going to go down as the song of the summer—if not in the hearts of music fans, at least in the ledger books. Just as it was manufactured to do.

Teenage Dream, Perry’s “summer album” as she’s called it, has finally arrived in stores (it’s the No. 1 album this week), and it’s front-loaded with attempts at nailing the aforementioned zeitgeist. The title track (like several others) recycles prom-theme lyrics (“let’s go all the way tonight . . . don’t ever look back”) over a colorless hook. “Last Friday Night,” the first mainstream pop song I can think of to use the phrase “epic fail,” is in itself is exactly that. There’s a lyric on the Autotune-sandbagged “Firework” that references the film American Beauty, simultaneously dating it to both 1999 and 2008. The coming-of-age lovey-dovey stuff is innocent enough, until you remember she’s singing about Russell Brand. Icky.

There’s a startling lack of personality in the first half of Teenage Dream, both sonically and literally. Dozens of engineers are listed as having worked on the record, and it sounds like it. Luke and Martin are on autopilot. Perry, less concerned with shock value than two years ago (save “Peacock,” an embarrassing, low-culture Gwen Stefani knockoff), has toned down the vocal tics that were all over her last record. That’s not an improvement, actually. Matched with weak hooks, she comes off flat—not tonally (because, computers!), but like house paint.

Strikingly, the album closes with a tonal shift, improved by the emergence of the other Katy Perry. The pure pop of “Hummingbird Heartbeat” along with “Not Like the Movies,” the album’s only out-and-out ballad, harkens ever so slightly to Perry’s development on the L.A. singer-songwriter circuit. This dichotomy could be interesting—the candy-coated Betty Boop character versus the more serious artist (leeway, please)—but instead she’s part cartoon, part pop-up ad. Her manifesto seems to be “OK, I’m a pop star, so now what?” which just makes her come off as Ke$ha without the edge, and that’s both the shittiest compliment and dumbest insult I’ve ever made.

Geek-rock godheads Weezer made some noise with the recent announcement that their forthcoming album, Hurley (due out Sept. 14), would be released on California indie label Epitaph. Which made for some interesting headlines—press releases trumpeted a “return to their indie-rock roots,” seemingly ignorant of the fact that the band recorded their first seven albums for Geffen. Maybe Epitaph got them mixed up with the Offspring?

In any case, here’s a band that’s not been afraid to sail headlong into their own vapidity in recent years (see: the flying dog on the cover of Raditude; the new album’s full-face cover photo of actor Jorge Garcia; also, the title Raditude), even at the risk of alienating longtime fans, while still self-consciously hitting the reset button every few releases by turning out something that sounds like a “classic” Weezer song. That’s led to some amount of disappointment—if you bought their last self-titled record (the red one) based on “Pork and Beans,” you know the feeling.

Bandleader Rivers Cuomo knows that a pop act is only as good as its singles; but for Hurley, Weezer’s third release in as many years, he’s finally remembered that the band’s aim is to sell albums. And the production here is undeniably Pinkerton-esque, all crushing drums, fuzzed-up guitar melodies, and mean-sounding riffs. Opener “Memories” is a flat acknowledgment of Cuomo’s quest to be forever 21, with talk-singy verses about a time “when Audioslave was still rage.” It’s quick, dumb fun, but nothing compared to “Ruling Me,” whose surf-rock lift and thick layers of vocal harmony place it among the band’s best.

At 10 songs and 34 minutes, Hurley still manages to have some sub-par moments. “Trainwrecks” is a dull midtempo number with no dynamics; “Where’s My Sex?” is at first glance an oddity, and on deeper inspection lyrically abominable. But the high points are worth the (brief) wait: “Unspoken” uses a sing-song melody and mellotron to build tension, then releases with the 45 seconds of pure power-pop bliss; the wistful tone of “Time Flies” recalls the writing of Paul Simon. For once Cuomo writes from a mature perspective without using irony as a crutch. No, Weezer fans, it’s not Pinkerton—but 80 percent of Hurley is the best Weezer record in a decade. And that’s a major graduation for a band whose aim has been to repeat their sophomore year ad infinitum.


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