There's nothing overtly wrong with Rooney's third album. It just doesn't have a whole lot of soul.
A few years ago a friend of mine placed a CDR in my mailbox, wanting to know what I thought of it. It was Rooney's 2007 sophomore album, Calling the World. I didn't know who they were or what their aspirations were, and certainly wasn't aware of their show business "connections". And I really just didn't care for it. I felt that the last thing this world needed was yet another Phantom Planet clone that writes three-minute pop songs about relationships that fade out over repeated choruses.
But as with most music out there, the following listens left a better impression. I stopped listening to Calling the World for what it wasn't and just accepted it for what it was, and this change in perception made the album more enjoyable. No one would accuse them of rewriting the book on power pop, and there was no reason to think that they towered over their peers. But they had their sound, their style, some catchy songs, and a consistent way of entertaining you over the course of an album. On occasion, that's all you need.
When you read an article or a review about Rooney, it doesn't take long before you bump into mentions of nepotism. Singer/songwriter Robert Schwartzman is the younger brother of movie star (and former Phantom Planet drummer) Jason Schwartzman, and apparently that whole clan is related to the Coppolas and Nicholas Cage or something -- I really don't care. Neither should you. If you visit this website on a regular basis, you are most likely concerned with the quality of music. There are those who let their feathers get ruffled by the idea of a bunch of rich kids easily landing a record deal, and that's probably understandable. But enough of the silver spoon talk, and on to the music.
With Eureka, Rooney are in self-released territory. The first track, "Holdin' On", provides a not-so-subtle hint of this when Schwartzman sings that he "went home to get a record deal" and confesses "I don't know why I'm here / I don't know where I'll go". You would think that this kind of liberation would pry open some creative floodgates and help make Eureka a definitive, or at least interesting statement. Alas, the notion of a missed opportunity hangs over the whole affair. An album named for a moment of realization, and with its very own authors calling the shots for production and distribution, comes out sounding either safe or indecisive, depending on what track is playing.
For one thing, numerous tracks don't achieve much more than accessibility. Robert Schwartzman is a decent singer, but his foremost talent comes in the form of his many melodic hooks. This may be a cliché in critical circles, but it's all too appropriate when discussing bands like Rooney. Songs like "I Don't Wanna Lose You", "All or Nothing", and "I Can't Get Enough" deliver on these goods. But in every case, it feels like Schwartzman stopped writing the songs after he stumbled upon a good chorus and a decent verse, leaving no song truly realized. The remaining band members color out the songs in the most rudimentary of ways, and spending any amount of time thinking about lyrics like "I tell you 'yes' / You tell me 'no' / I ask you 'why?' / You never let me know" will give you an absolute headache.
The moments of Eureka that manage to stand out do so in ways that are more odd or desperate than eclectic or diverse. One blatantly sore thumb is "The Hunch", penned by band members Taylor Locke and Ned Brower. Two and a half minutes long, galloping to a brisk 12/8 classic rock boogie, with lyrics that walk the listener through a day of bad premonitions, it sounds like it was written as part of a lost wager. Just two tracks later appears a can't-we-just-all-get-along-and-fix-the-economy-together anthem called "Star and Stripes", which admirably tries to summon the Marvin Gaye ghost of What's Going On past. Even if it doesn't really sound like the rest of the album (it's centered on a piano riff), it doesn't stray too far from the Rooney formula. Besides, the song should also be commended for sounding disastrous in theory but actually holding together in practice. The band get to briefly indulge in hard rock with "Not In My House," some sort of confrontational yet awkward bitch-slap that seems hell-bent on unleashing crunchy guitars and bearing its lyrical fangs. It's hard to tell what to make of it, if anything.
I hesitate to say that Rooney peaked prior to this album. Eureka is only their third proper full-length. But whereas Calling the World paid great dividends in the fun department over repeated listening, Rooney just don't seem to be channeling that joy at the moment. Perhaps they are sweating over their new business plan, or maybe they feel they have to prove themselves to the naysayers time and again due to their status. But apart from a few strange detours, Eureka finds Rooney in purgatory, where they bang out some merely-there three-minute pop songs about relationships that fade out over repeated choruses. We know that Rooney are capable of better, because they have done better. And when Rooney work towards better things in the future, their third album will probably be looked back upon as just another placeholder.