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[Cellars]

Not just hanging out
Walthamís teenage rock-and-roll machines

BY CARLY CARIOLI

Sundayís a school night, so weíre here early: itís 6:30 p.m., and a crowd is already beginning to filter into the House of Blues in Harvard Square. Upstairs, the dressing room is cramped and far from opulent: a tiny bathroom with a shower, a makeshift buffet, folk-art furnishings, and a small cable-equipped TV. But Noelle, a shy 15-year-old tomboy with a face perpetually half-hidden behind a shock of long nut-brown hair, is subtly impressed: "Wow, can I sit in the Frank Sinatra chair?" Instead she collapses into a couch and checks her cell-phone messages, returns a friendís call. Her bandmates ó a 21-year-old former black-metal guitarist called Patrick ("Donít use my last name," he begs), a 21-year-old bass player named Vazquez ("Please donít use my first name," he begs), and a drummer/producer named Adam Rourke, who gives his age as "I dunno, 23, itís different every time" ó excitedly inspect the amenities. "Dude, all that practice is worth it just for this," says Vazquez, a gangly, easygoing hesher, as he digs into a plate of Caesar salad. Noelle is finishing up her cell-phone call: "Um, okay, I love you too. Bye." Then, hanging up, she looks up and says, "I never know what to say when people say they love me. Why do people say that?"

She may have to get used to it. Her self-released debut album, This Summer, is the kind of swooning teenage X-games crush pop likely to inspire reams of manic devotion and at least a few extra wheelies on the halfpipe. The opening track, "Frustrated, Unnoticed (BMX)," introduces our new all-ages all-star: raised on a steady diet of Weezer and ESPN2, she runs as fast as anyone she knows, she freestyles wherever she goes, and she doesnít cry when she falls. If only she could find her dream boy. Her perfect date? "In the day he can meet me in the park/BMX all day until dark," she daydreams breezily on "Carwash Romance"; for a nightcap, they get high, ride their bikes to the car wash, and OD on junk food.

That car wash: it shows up in a bunch of the songs on This Summer, a kind of self-contained metaphor for both the familiar pleasures and the limited scope of pre-driverís-license life in a suburban satellite, as Noelle fantasizes about the boys who drive through in their muscle rides, cleans up after snotty girls who leave garbage strewn around the coin-op vacuum pods, and dreams in stereo about a life that doesnít involve toweling off I-ROCs. She sings with a keening lack of affectation, like a more bummed-out Kay Hanley. The great drama of her singing ó the thing thatís so damn teenagerish about her ó is the way she conceals great depths of emotion beneath a veneer of stylized indifference thatís shaded with hints of longing, hurt, and a dreamy transcendence one size too big for her heart to handle. "So meet me if you care/Iíll be at the spot," she coos on "Up to You." "Maybe see you there/Or not." And itís in the way she sings that hedging "or not," the words stretched out into four syllables, her voice breaking into a sudden weightless falsetto leap and fall, that all is spoken.

Noelle is a junior at Waltham High, which is one of the few locations on earth where the lines "So what is it you got/That makes you frigginí smart?" actually rhyme. Her phone is her lifeline. In "Rockstar," all she wants is a boy who wonít hang up: "We talked just now while on the phone . . . you held when I said ĎPlease hold oní/And now I feel like weíre not gone." And in "On My Mind," she wakes from a dream of flying at high speeds up and away from the world, like a wireless signal, "so we could get away to be alone for hours." The phone can ring, she sings, and the world can end ó she delivers these lines with the same emphasis, as if they were equally mild annoyances ó "and thatís okay/O-way-ee-ay-oh, ícause youíre mine." As the song closes, sheís forced to break off her date, as if it were a dream interrupted by a ringing alarm clock, when her beeper goes off: "And now our night will end ícause my dadís on the prowl/He paged a thousand times tonight for every hour."

As with so much perfect teenage rock and roll from the Shangri-Las to the Donnas, Noelle did not write any of the songs on This Summer. They were all written ó and subsequently thrown out, forgotten, discarded ó by Dave Pino, who is best known as the lead-guitarist and principal songwriter in a band called Waltham. You remember Waltham: theyíre from Waltham, they sing about girls.

A PIZZA SHOP, in the neighborhood. In the background you can hear a band playing. The counter girl: "One-ten, you get five cents back. Thanks." The rustle of conversation and clinking glass. A manís voice, shouted over the music: "So, are you working hard or hardly working?" Itís a stagy come-on, but it serves its purpose: the counter girl gives an exasperated half-giggle, half-sigh. The guy laughs a canned laugh: "You look like you could still be in high school."

"Yeah, everyone says that."

"How old are you?"

"Nineteen," she says, a little defensively. She shoots back, "How old are you?"

"Twenty-six," he says, with a satisfaction thatís beginning to feel slimy in a conversation between members of the opposite sex on opposing sides of the drinking age. You can almost hear the smirk as he says, "Think we could still be friends?"

An uncomfortable pause. "So," she says, "what can I get you?"

"How about a meatball sandwich, a medium Coke, and . . . your phone number?"

At that moment the veil lifts, the introductory conversation and the restaurant patter are sucked away, and itís just you and the band from the back of the restaurant: track five on an album by a group called Waltham, who are from a town called Waltham in suburban Massachusetts. But the seduction continues: "And I donít care about this small town giving me a hard time," Frank Pino is singing. " íCause thereíll be you and me in stereo, and youíll see why Iím the one."

Although theyíve already won a Boston Music Award and came within a hair of winning the Rumble two years ago, Walthamís first album ó entitled The First Album, and recorded in the bandís home studio ó was quietly released just a couple of months ago. It serves up their nine best songs, including the live favorites "Hook Me Up with Your Friend," "Nicole," "Cheryl," "Laura," "Wake Up," and two songs about girls named Maria. Itís the album Waltham shouldíve put out two years ago, and it is, belated or not, brilliant. One way to describe Walthamís music, with its sly references to Boston, Journey, Rick Springfield, the Cars, and .38 Special, would be to call it post-ironic ó their near-instantaneous popularity with Bostonís indie-scenesters would seem to support such a view ó though pre-ironic might be a better fit. Frank Pino, Daveís brother and mouthpiece, has a voice that is utterly guileless. Youíd have to go back to Jon Bon Jovi to find someone who sings as comfortably about chasing skirts in small towns: thereís an epic Mellencampic melodrama about his pick-ups. Frank Pino wants you to want him, and as you listen to him sing it is difficult to believe that this is not of great importance ó the world will not be in balance until he has won the heart of the girl.

"But I never found the music that had got me going quite like you did," goes a grammar-be-damned line on the last song on The First Album. "So I stay uncool, ícause Iím not cool with moving on/Iím just a kid from Moody, looking for a girl who sees right through me." The uncool kid from Moody Street ó leave it to Dave Pino to pen a song that transforms Walthamís main drag into his own personal exile on Main Street.

Inasmuch as heís used to writing songs for his brother in Waltham, Dave Pino is not unacquainted with the idea that other people might sing his songs. Itís just that he never wrote songs with a 15-year-old girl in mind. "Those guys," he says, referring to Noelle, "they donít want it to look like itís my project, and itís not. It wasnít my idea for them to do it; it was their idea. Anyway, all the songs that theyíre using are from 1996 and 1997 ó theyíre tunes I made up to give to girls and then that was the end of it, no one else ever heard them."

FROM HER PERCH at the House of Blues, Noelle is profoundly unabashed about singing someone elseís songs. "Dave was basically a 15-year-old girl when he was 18 years old," she says. "I really relate to these songs a lot ó itís about, like, high school. It just gives off that vibe, yíknow?" Neither is she worried that people listening to This Summer will make assumptions about the singer based on the songs. "Yeah, I know, but it fits. Theyíre really girlie songs."

True! As you listen to This Summer, the only difficulty is in grasping how Dave Pino, who cites Rick Springfieldís Working Class Dogs as a personal fave, managed to write several albumsí worth of Weezer-inspired teenage skate-punk gems. (Pino is said to have an archive of 150 songs from this period, and Noelle has already recorded a second discís worth of Pino material. "You know how the first Weezer album is real poppy and happy, and then the second one is like, more mature and stuff?" she says. "Itís kinda like that.") Thereís a streak of metallic rawk action on This Summer thatís indebted less to the Donnas than to Veruca Salt and even, on occasion, to the wistfulness of early Velocity Girl. And unlike Waltham, Adam Rourke, who recorded This Summer in a basement studio at his parentsí house, has his finger on a pop-punk pulse that beats to vert-ramp faves Blink-182 and Jimmy Eat World. The songs fairly roar with the ragged bubblegum new-wave glory of the Ramones and the Muffs; they reel with giddy, cotton-candy carnival confections lifted from the Cars catalogue.

In the dressing room at the House of Blues, Rourke sends his mom to work the merch booth and draws up a set list. It includes three songs not on Noelleís debut, and when they play a cover of the non-album Weezer track "You Gave Your Love to Me Softly," it will be surprising only in sounding not quite as catchy as the song they play immediately before it, a stunning unreleased Pino composition called "Feel Bad Vibe."

Thereís just one last question for Noelle: does she really freestyle wherever she goes? "Iím not a stuntie," she smiles. "I can do a bunny hop, like a little one. I pop my tires every time I go up a curb. We always go cruising around on our BMX bikes. Thatís kinda how we all started hanging out, we just started a neighborhood bike gang." Theyíd ride around Waltham, up to the perfectly named Prospect Hill: "And like cruising, going down Moody Street? Like on Saturday and Sunday nights? Itís awesome, ícause everybodyís around and just hanging out. Itís just fun."

Issue Date: November 29 - December 6, 2001

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