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Recordings

Radish
Restraining Bolt
(Mercury)

Ben Lee
Something to Remember Me By
(Grand Royal)

Frankie Lymon was 13 when he peaked in 1955 with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?". Two years later, his career stalled for good, and he was only 25 when he died from a heroin overdose. Lymon's an extreme example, but most teen idols squeak by as adults. Ask David Cassidy when he's not hosting 8-Track Flashback.

At 15, Ben Kweller, lead singer/guitarist of the Texas trio Radish, is still young enough to assume being a star is the only option that matters. On the strength of a three-song demo, Kweller signed a million-dollar-plus contract with Mercury, which just released the band's first album, Restraining Bolt. Kweller sounds frighteningly self-assured for someone in his midteens, but that's the catch, too: Bolt is a glib assimilation of 40 years of guitar rock, cunningly crafted and full of empty calories. Produced by Roger Greenawalt but remixed for indie cred by Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (who worked with Hole), Bolt is essentially power pop by a kid younger than MTV but savvy in the same smug, knowing way.

According to a recent profile in The New Yorker (yes, Kweller is that special!), two posters dominate his bedroom wall. One, of course, is of Kurt Cobain; the other, slightly larger, is of Weezer. Right there, you have the fundamental problem with Restraining Bolt. Kweller can imitate Cobain's guitar and even scream like him when it's called for, but really he's Rivers Cuomo in training. "Little Pink Stars" and "Simple Sincerity" are almost as catchy as "Buddy Holly" and "Undone--The Sweater Song," only not as deep.

When Kweller shrieks, "Whoa! No!," and bends his guitar strings 'til they almost break, he's not uncapping some deep well of frustration; he just heard others do the same thing and, hey, it sounded cool. The most convincing song here is "My Guitar," a cheesy mash note to his loyal Gibson, but the most intriguing is "Failing and Leaving," which hints at the trouble Kweller, who suffers from attention-deficit disorder, got into when he still attended public school. Kweller, you see, is a home-schooled guitar hero managed, until recently, by his wanna-be-rock-star dad, a doctor who moonlights as his son's roadie. Tell me this isn't a situation ripe for rock 'n' roll rebellion--but first Kweller needs to slow down for a moment and find his own voice. Otherwise, he'll have decades to relive his moment of glory over beers with Macaulay Culkin.

Australia's Ben Lee isn't much older than Kweller, only 18, but he knows youth can only take you so far. Something to Remember Me By is his fourth American release and his second solo album since Noise Addict (a band Lee dismisses now as "the perfect teenage rock thing") folded. Lee was Kweller's age when he made his American debut with Young and Jaded in 1994. It wasn't very good except for "I Wish I Was Him," a bit of hero worship built on a simple guitar strum and little-boy wistfulness.

Heard today, the song sounds more durable than the object of Lee's affection, alterna-hunk Evan Dando, because the impulse is both universal and touchingly misguided (as anyone who has kept track of Dando during his recent lost years can attest). The shy, determined kid who sang it is barely visible on Something to Remember Me By, and that's fitting because three years is a lifetime when you're Lee's age. More so than 1995's largely acoustic Grandpa Would, Something is sadder, softer and wiser than you have any right to expect from someone who has completed secondary school.

Produced by Brad Wood (Liz Phair), the album never rocks harder than the midtempo groove of its opening track, "How to Survive a Broken Heart," but its real punch comes from its consistently sharp jolt of emotion. "I don't mind the sting of feeling," Lee sings at one point, "but it burns when I'm empty." Fortunately, the sting is there on all 16 songs, whether Lee's trying to understand why his sisters don't like each other or wondering how come the thrill is short-lived when a girl he loved at 8 reappears in his life at 17. He's not tackling subjects that are new--there are songs about romantic guilt, dying too soon, and self-doubt--but his graceful melodies and gently insistent guitar make them undeniable.

Even when he's expressing joy, Lee sounds like he can't quite escape sadness. "Grammercy Park Hotel" is about staying up late and playing music with a couple of friends. "It's 3 a.m. in New York," he sings, "it's the time of my life," and clearly he means every word--but you know, and he does, too, that it was all over by 4 or 5. Even at his cheapest, Lee refuses to let himself off the hook. "Household Name" is about '80s sitcom stars who've become pop-culture casualties; it narrowly escapes being a dumb smirk because Lee gives it more: "You're never quite so cute/And I should know/Once puberty takes its toll." It's a tough lesson to swallow, but Lee accepts that the march of time is unavoidable. With luck, so will Kweller.

--Keith Moerer

Papas Fritas
Helioself
(Minty Fresh)

Papas Fritas' second album kicks off with an irresistible oughta-be-a-hit single that starts with an insistent organ playing on four, a bass grumbling underneath and some maracas hinting at the massive hand-claps-in-a-big-echoey-room groove that's about to suck you in. The three voices deliver a rushed lyric that barely allows time for a breath between the words; a sitar starts to drone in the background and a monstrous power chord leads to a massive sing-along chorus--"Hey, hey, you say!"--that seems to speak volumes without saying a goddamn thing, just like many of your favorite tunes.

In fact, the only other line I remember from "Hey, Hey, You Say" is the one where those three irresistibly cute voices sing, "We wanna rock!" And rock they do, though that's "rock" in a particular power-pop fashion a la first-generation Modern Lovers, Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, the Go-Go's, and the late, lamented dB's, Bongos, and Feelies. In other words, cool rock nerds working in a wonderful genre that has been pretty much ignored of late outside L.A.'s Poptopia scene and maybe Chicago's Pulsars and Yum-Yum.

The band's name is Spanish for French fries, which is also appropriately meaningless at first glance. But it's really a pun on a bigger statement that shows up as the moniker of the group's publishing company--Pop Has Freed Us--and that tells the whole story right there. Guitarist Tony Goddess, drummer Shivika Asthana and bassist Keith Gendel were all socially inept, musically talented, too-smart-for-their-own-good misfits who never really fitted in and never really felt "normal" until they picked up their instruments and suddenly found themselves able to say everything they'd always wanted to say. Released in 1995 on Chicago's Minty Fresh (the label that brought you Veruca Salt), the Massachusetts trio's self-titled debut hinted at the depth of its talents. But Helioself fulfills the promise of both that disc and the band's name.

The 12 tunes were recorded in a weird old house set on 17 wooded acres in Gloucester, Massachusetts--the band members named it Columnated Ruins in homage to Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks--and the lush layers of piano, guitar, vocal harmonies, synthesizers and all manner of percussive and melodic weirdness were mixed at Boston's Fort Apache by the ever-versatile team of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (whose credits range from Dinosaur Jr. to Wilco to the Mighty Mighty BossTones--and, now, Radish). The ornate soundscapes and the finely crafted hooks in songs such as "We've Got All Night," the wonderfully anthemic "Words to Sing" and the lulling "Live by the Water" are what grab you and keep you coming back. But the more you listen, the more you realize that Papas Fritas isn't just about ear candy and fluffy lyrics that conveniently happen to rhyme.

Like all of the best rockers today, the band members are searching for meaning as we hurtle toward the end of the millennium, but they're finding it an age-old romantic ideal that is still worth striving for. "Times have changed/I want to listen to something I believe in," the group croons in "Sing About Me," neatly summing up rock's postgrunge, postangst dilemma. "I believe in nothing/But I believe in loving you," comes the reply a few songs later in "Captain of the City." The truth is Helioself is good enough to make a believer out of anyone.

--Jim DeRogatis


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