Clever Boy

February 6, 2007


From its humble origins in the basements of suburban Wilmette and the underground incubator of the Fireside Bowl, Fall Out Boy has risen to the loftiest -- and strangest -- heights of modern celebrity.

The pop-punk quartet sold 3 million copies of its third album, "From Under the Cork Tree" (2005), making today's release of "From Infinity on High" one of the most anticipated of 2007.

Label honcho and King of Bling Jay-Z contributed vocals and production and inspired a release-day stunt that finds the group playing three shows in 24 hours: an appearance with MTV in New York this morning, a show at Chicago's House of Blues at 3:30 this afternoon and a gig on a rooftop in downtown Los Angeles tonight.

(Hometown fans can forget about getting into HOB: All the tickets went to a radio contest and the group's fan club. But the band will end its spring tour with two shows at Charter One Pavilion on June 10-11, and those tickets come on sale soon.)

For their many teenybopper fans, bassist-lyricist Pete Wentz, singer Patrick Stump, guitarist Joe Trohman and drummer Andrew Hurley have been rendered as plastic action figures, and Wentz has started his own clothing line, Clandestine Industries. For older admirers, they designed a custom compact for the car company sponsoring their tour. Wentz has even had naked pictures spread across the Web, topping Pam Anderson and Paris Hilton in an AOL poll of the most popular naughty Net searches. (He swears they're old shots taken as a joke and hacked from his PDA -- yeah, right, tell it to Paris.)

Scoff at all of this hype if you will, but Fall Out Boy's melodic, exuberant and smartly written songs justify the excitement. And "From Infinity on High" is a major leap forward, bringing a wild ambition to the simple genre patented by the Ramones, revived by fellow Chicagoans Screeching Weasel and turned into a platinum phenomenon by the likes of Green Day and Blink-182.

The band's roots are still obvious, but this ain't your father's pop-punk anymore.

The new Billy Corgan?!
Many reviewers credit Jay-Z and fellow producer Babyface with upping the dance quotient here. But the group was already moving this way -- see Wentz's patronage of Panic! At the Disco via his Decaydance Records -- and it's easy to forget that poppy punk bands have always flirted with disco (remember Blondie's "Heart of Glass") or that Fall Out Boy's own career was launched by ska-punk heroes Less Than Jake.

The real surprise is that Jay and Babyface are as adept with loud guitars and pummeling rock rhythms as they are with funky jams. As a result, "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race" -- the single that the group premiered at the American Music Awards last November and that promptly sold 162,000 copies in one week of downloads -- works equally as well as a dance-floor groover and a chant-along, fist-pumping arena anthem.

"I am an arms dealer/Fitting you with weapons in the form of words," Wentz writes and Stump sings. "Don't really care which side wins/As long as the room keeps singing/That's just the business I'm in."

This mercenary attitude is employed to dis exclusionary hipster rock scenes, just like the Smashing Pumpkins did on their breakthrough single "Cherub Rock." Wentz is the new Billy Corgan in this regard, using an unapologetic fondness for classic-rock populism as an excuse to justify his unbridled rock-star aspirations.

But as with the Pumpkins at their best, it's hard to complain when Fall Out Boy (named for a superhero sidekick from the universe of "The Simpsons") delivers the goods with such a diverse, larger-than-life, old-fashioned blockbuster album, joining peers My Chemical Romance in crafting a silly but irresistible "Bat Out of Hell" or "Frampton Comes Alive" for Generation Y.

Genre hopping
From the snippet of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" woven into "Hum Hallelujah," the fake hard-core/death metal growl of "The Carpal Tunnel of Love," the Billy Joel piano balladry of "Golden" and the New Romantics disco of "The (After) Life of the Party," no genre is left unscathed. Nor is there a big production trick untried; witness the massive Beatles-style chorus of "I'm a Lawyer With the Way I'm Always Trying to Get You Off (Me & You)," the plunking strings and bleating horns meet power-chord guitars of "Thnks Frth Mmrs" and an opening track called "Thriller" that one-ups Michael Jackson by promising that your life can be saved by a vinyl 7-inch single ("So long live the car-crash heart/Lie on the couch till the poets come to life/Fix me in 45").

Those ridiculously long, pun-filled song titles and winking allusions to poetry have prompted some critics to lump Wentz, who's also publishing a novel, with the hordes of whining emo "artistes," but that's just plain wrong. Verbose and pretentious he may be, but he's also witty, self-deprecating and thoroughly aware of how silly rock and stardom really are. Together with his bandmates, he's simply having fun with it all.

This attitude is infectious. It's what justifies Jay-Z's taunt at the start of the disc: "What you critics said would never happen, we dedicate this album to anybody who people said couldn't make it!" But more importantly, it's what rewards the last words we hear: "Now press repeat."


FALL OUT BOY "From Infinity on High"
3 and a half stars