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A chip off the old pop 

Rooney loves Badfinger, the Cars and Weezer best of all!

Since its star turn in "The Bait Shop" on FOX's The O.C., Rooney has catapulted itself to undercard status on all sorts of Big Rock Tours, opening for hip acts such as Weezer and The Strokes. Rooney has played several small headlining tours, too, even though the group has only one self-titled album released two years ago. The band has played Letterman and Leno, and yet only diehard fans could pick them out of a lineup.

Chalk up the success to the LA-based quintet's music, a tone-perfect rendition of power pop as purveyed by the Cars, the Zombies, Sloan and Badfinger. Self-described "tone freaks" all, the band writes songs with an AM-dial love of harmony and melody paired with an FM-style instrumental surge.

You might call Rooney the Wynton Marsalis of modern rock. To some, the band is helping to keep the lost art of its forefathers (and mothers) alive with new music that sounds convincingly enough like the original stuff -- if you don't listen too hard. To others, Rooney is yet another tantalizingly tressed nail in rock & roll's coffin. The band doesn't so much break new ground as tread the well-worn path laid down by its idols. Forget the "Next Brian Wilson" comparisons -- does the world need another Weezer soundalike when the real Rivers keeps flowing? At least Creed was gracious enough to let Pearl Jam become a Pearl JamBand first.

Maybe Rooney -- like Beachwood Sparks, Sloan and The Tom Collins -- will take the next step, incorporating its admirable influences into something newly minted. This something would have to gain currency with both the legions of power-pop fans and the odd indie fence-straddler.

Methodical in both preparation and presentation, the band -- Robert Carmine (guitar, vocals), Taylor Locke (vocals, guitar), Matthew Winter (bass), Louis Stephens (keyboards) and Ned Brower (drums) -- was soon snapped up by Interscope Records. Formed in 1999, the band put out its major-label debut in 2003. It was produced by Keith Forsey (Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs) and Brian Reeves (Pet Shop Boys), with Interscope honcho Jimmy Iovine (Tom Petty) twisting the knobs on the album's biggest hit, "I'm Shakin." Carmine has said the band's songwriting aegis is simple: Write youthful tunes but, like a Buddy Holly or Beatles, strive to make those tunes as intelligent and universal as possible. Better yet, write that most transcendent of pop-rock forms: the love song.

I'd argue that the real reason Rooney has succeeded in its cross-generational lovefest is that it's learned the lesson that great pop artists from Chuck Berry and the Beatles to Nirvana learned: when in doubt, write a kicking chorus. Most of Rooney's choruses involve either being in love, being in lust, falling out of love, or, erm, "shakin'." Who can't identify with that?

It's that same reliance on tone and hooks that shows Rooney still has some growing up to do. Sure, you can speak the language like a native, but can you say anything new with it? As of yet, the answer with regard to Rooney seems to be no. Take the song "Popstars," a lukewarm and totally unnecessary rant against Britney, *NSync and any other act still blowing the bubblegum in this day and age. "Popstars" is the perfect example of the guys in Rooney not being old enough or wise enough to pick their battles wisely. Worse, the song is more forgettable than most of Britney's songs.

Finally -- and there's just no way to get around this -- Rooney's record sounds a whole hell of a lot like Weezer, both vocally and structurally. In fact, if Rooney the Original Act were to get dropped by its label tomorrow, a lucrative career for the boys as a Weez cover band could be in the offing. (The Sons of "Sweater," perhaps? We can already see it on Amos' marquee.) As it stands now, both the music and lyrical context of Rooney's songs lack the emotional warmth (and, too often, the fire in the belly) of Rivers Cuomo & Co.

All of this can be forgiven with a solid sophomore release, but it's been two years with nothing from the studio. Meanwhile, for all their talk of plastic popstars and disposable ditties, the guys in Rooney haven't done a whole lot to distance themselves from that world. In fact, one might argue that the very nature of Rooney's protestations show how Britney's mindless blockbusters have perhaps hit Rooney more times than they'd like to admit.

The Zippo Hot Tour with Rooney and All-American Rejects is at Tremont Music Hall at 7pm Wednesday, Nov. 9. (All ages.) Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door; charge at www.etix.com.

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