How much does language matter in pop music?
Most Americans didn't understand a word of "Gangnam Style," yet we clicked PSY's online hit up to a billion views. Likewise, the hundreds of other K-pop stars look to the model of Latin music as an example of crossover magic in America. The Billboard charts, too, are not averse to the occasional or partial non-English hit ("Alles klar, Herr Kommissar?").
So who's to say the new album out now, "Scott & Rivers" -- a collaboration between Chicago's Scott Murphy and Weezer's Rivers Cuomo -- won't succeed on its own, half-Japanese merits?
Murphy founded Allister in 1996, one of the charter pop-punk bands on the briefly influential Drive-Thru label. A 2001 tour of Japan bewitched him, and five years later the band was touring Japan again and recording an album of Japanese and English cover songs called "Guilty Pleasures," with Murphy singing half the songs in Japanese. He's been signed to Universal Music Japan ever since.
Cuomo, likewise, has been fascinated by Japanese culture, and he married a Japanese woman. When he heard one of Murphy's albums, he sought him out for advice. This fun J-pop collaboration was born.
The dozen tracks on "Scott and Rivers" -- five titled in English, most with at least English choruses -- prove what power-pop fans have understood ever since 1978's "Cheap Trick at Budokan": that great melodies and sharp hooks transcend all language barriers. Mystery is the best element in rock music, anyway, and with most choruses sung in English, non-Japanese speakers will find it easy (and appealing) to fill in the verses in their head. Plus, some things don't translate and provide for entertaining punctuation points, such as the Japanese verses of "Homely Girl" with their occasional English phrases ("rock star," "perfect 10").
The real glory of this record, though, is that these are some of the tightest tunes and fun, rocking songs Cuomo has had his hand in for a long while. The punchy opening trio could be outtakes from Weezer's Blue or Green albums (especially "Break Free" and "Freakin' Love My Life," respectively). Meanwhile, the rolling modulations of "朝は近い" (Google-translated: "Close the Morning") and the incongruous but pleasant dancefloor synth-pop of "終わりのないこの詩" ("This Poem Never-Ending") indicate that Cuomo's inherent creativity is still flourishing behind those trademark specs. (Too bad Weezer has been reduced to playing malls and shilling for Microsoft -- appearing June 22 at Woodfield in Schaumburg.)
"Scott and Rivers" features songwriting contributions from several others, too -- including some surprising credits, such as ex-Semisonic song-slinger Dan Wilson (on track to becoming the male Diane Warren) and, my my, ex-"American Idol" drama queen Adam Lambert.
Now, let's have a stateside tour, please -- with Shonen Knife opening!