Should everyone tire of The O.C.'s theme song, Phantom Planet's ''California,'' Rivers Cuomo's written a fitting replacement. On ''Beverly Hills,'' the first single from Weezer's Make Believe, Cuomo is entirely believable as an insecure geek commenting, with equal parts resentment and admiration, on celebrity culture (and how he'll never be a part of it); few play the loser card better. There's only one problem: At 34, Cuomo is a little old to be writing songs slagging easy targets like L.A. and ''preppy girls,'' and then setting them to overly simplistic power chords. Should he really be reduced to imitating bands who imitate Weezer. . .like, say, Phantom Planet?
The rest of Make Believe is similarly disconcerting. Cuomo himself must have realized he'd gone too far with the knotty metal and obscurant lyrics of 2002's nearly impenetrable Maladroit. In contrast, five albums in, Make Believe is Weezer's most conventional disc. New producer Rick Rubin has scraped away Maladroit's sonic grime and opted for a cleaner-sounding record heavy on way-earnest power ballads like ''Hold Me'' and the especially corny ''My Best Friend.'' If the old Weezer had penned a tune called ''We Are All on Drugs,'' it would have been dosed with irony (as in the ambiguous ''Hash Pipe'' from the 2001 ''Green Album''). Here, though, ''Drugs'' is a straight-faced warning about the perils of getting high.
As we've heard in the past, a sincere, no-frills Weezer isn't all bad, though. Cuomo's never crafted a ballad as sad and beautiful as ''Haunt You Every Day,'' and ''Perfect Situation'' and ''Pardon Me'' (one of several songs in which he seeks forgiveness or alludes to his past unstable behavior) revive Weezer's trademark blend of power pop and arena crunch. But without Cuomo's old jittery nerves, little of the CD ignites in the way Maladroit's finest emo-metal moments (''Slave'' and ''Take Control'') did. Cuomo has never sounded more like a regular guy than he does on Make Believe, but normality can be its own kind of straitjacket.