Magic Stick, Detroit, May 27, 2003
It’s always disorienting to attend a rock & roll show in the daytime; it’s even more confusing when it feels more like a sitcom taping than a club gig. The youngsters in LA combo Rooney were in town, and it became immediately clear that most of the respectable Tuesday evening crowd was more interested in the glare off the band’s Hollywood cheekbones than its workmanlike mixture of 70s pop and 1980s piano tie fizz.
Rooney emerged in 2000 around vocalist/guitarist Robert Carmine, who had previously risen to Teen People levels of fame with appearances in The Virgin Suicides and The Princess Diaries under his given name, Robert Schwartzman. Yes yes, Carmine is another Talia Shire offspring, and the brother of Jason Schwartzman, better known as either Max Fischer or the drummer of Phantom Planet, the poppy-like-Costello LA squad that gave Rooney an opening slot early in 2001. Both had the right mix of looks, chops, and properly fashionable influences to make waves in a pop music world where retro is once again chic. Rooney soon signed with Geffen/Interscope, tidied up its wardrobe of pressed velvet blazers, grew in to-die-for shags, and embarked on tours with Weezer, The Vines, and The Strokes before even releasing a debut record. That LP finally dropped in spring 2003. Produced by Keith Forsey (Psychedelic Furs), Brian Reeves (Pet Shop Boys), and industry kingpin Jimmy Iovine, the eponymous affair is primed and pretty. It’s steeped in the sunny sounds of ELO and The Beach Boys, references Oingo Boingo and the Furs on the back end, and lies in a poppy field of digitized vintage effects. The album is a Patrick Nagel woman dressed down in a drop-neck designer number from 1974, and marks the arrival of the left coast Strokes. Let ’em recognize from Long Beach to Rosecrans.
As part of its ongoing series of renovations, The Magic Stick removed the carpeting that had blanketed its main area in favor of gleaming hardwood. While the new floor was shiny, cool, and made everything louder, it also contributed to the disorienting quality of Rooney’s set. The last rays of sun were still shining through the Stick’s skylight as Carmine and his cohorts took the stage to the titters and swoons of the eager Hot Topic shoppers clogging stage front. But without the nighttime gloom to fill in its nooks and crannies, the club became, well, just a room. Sound system, light rack, square stage, glimmering hardwood floor? It could just have easily been a sound stage masquerading as a rock club. Add 150 gussied up kids screaming and cheering with each song’s end, and it might as well have been a movie shoot. No APPLAUSE! signs went on, and a PA never stopped Rooney midway through a song for a re-do, since the camera guys didn’t get the shot they wanted. But as that scenario ran through my head, it became clear that the music wasn’t exciting enough to hold my interest. Sure, the kids can play. Fancy-hair’d guitarist Taylor Locke effortlessly threw out fuzzy Les Paul guitar lines, and Louie Stephens’ spacey, ooo-WEE-ooh’ing synth lines were campy, sugary fun. But through roughly all of its debut and an OK cover of the Ramones’ “We’re a Happy Family” (the title track from this year’s star-studded Ramones tribute LP), Rooney showed absolutely no enthusiasm. It was like watching a bunch of pint-sized studio cats rehearse material for a chamber pop experiment by Jeff Lynne and Ric Ocasek.
Despite the initial hype, eventual supermodel love-a-making, and subsequent over-exposure, The Strokes still proved to be a solid live act with a lot of sophomore potential. Similarly, Phantom Planet won over naysayers with a solid effort on wax (2002’s The Guest), and a club tour that found them goofing around with the locals and smashing up their own gear. Okay, maybe they can afford to smash their gear where some dudes can’t. But the smashing was genuine at least 1 out of 5 times. Rooney can’t squeak by on a stylized vintage pedigree, big-name production values and fabulous haircuts. As the band proved Tuesday evening, it needs to ditch the onstage indifference, stop trying to figure out which girl waiting by the tour bus is of age, and start focusing on the rock and roll.