Radio Ready

In one memorable moment of Nick Hornby's collection of confessional rock essays, Songbook, he gushes about Nelly Furtado's "I'm Like a Bird." It's a surprising choice, not only because that song is better suited to Wet Seal customers than a middle-aged scribe but also because Hornby is the author of High Fidelity, the bible of music-clerk snobbery, and Furtado's hit is fairly typical Top 40 bubblegum. But Hornby simply loves the song, is addicted to the song, and while Miss Furtado may not exactly be her generation's Bob Dylan, Hornby writes, "I will always be grateful to her for creating in me the narcotic need to hear her song again and again. It is, after all, a harmless need, easily satisfied, and there are few enough of those in the world."

The quote has been rattling around in my head this week as I try to pinpoint what, exactly, I should write about the local band known as The Vanished. On one hand, their 2004 debut album, My Favorite Scar, which recently received a national release from Dallas-based Kirtland Records, is packed with fairly formulaic, radio-ready modern rock songs. And yet, their first single, "My Favorite Scar," has become something of a habit for me over the past year. The first time I heard it, I cringed at the banal sentimentality: "Remember when we'd never part? No purple tears and break each other's heart?" But as it crept onto the Edge's playlist, racking up more than a thousand spins to become one of the year's most played singles, I began to acquiesce, as if the intellectual side of me simply surrendered to the song's super-Velcroed hooks, the twang of the sitar, the power chorus. If I hear it in my car--and, if I'm listening to the Edge, chances are that I will--then it is lodged in my head with the subtlety of a pickax to the skull. The only cure for this is the poison itself. Later, I will have to put on my Vanished CD, discreetly close my office door and rock out.

"We're sketched into your head. That's a good place to be," says lead singer Kevin Kirkwood when we meet for a couple of beers one night. Kirkwood is a down-to-earth guy, the kind of musician you wouldn't mind your daughter dating. (Although she can't. Sorry, girls, he's engaged.) He's also quite busy promoting the album as the single rolls out to stations across the South and Midwest. Yesterday, Kirkwood kicked off the day with Good Morning Texas and ended it on Alan Ayo's evening show on the Edge; this morning, he woke up at 5:30 to play the Hard Rock Café with emo giants Jimmy Eat World. He's not complaining--this is, after all, something of a rock-star fantasy, and for Kirkwood, it is a rare second grab at fame. Before The Vanished, he and guitarist Dallas Perry found some success in Seven Channels, a local band that won a contest that turned into a record deal and a tour with Three Doors Down. But after coming home, Kirkwood dissolved the band. "I didn't wanna wake up one morning and realize I wasn't making music I liked," he says.

Instead, he wanted to mix dark and light elements into his work, the way his hero Tim Burton had in movies like Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. He wanted to fold in echoes of the bands he loves--modern hardcore and emo, yes, but also old stuff like The Cure, Mötley Crüe, Hall and Oates.

"Did you just say you love Hall and Oates?" I ask, pushing the tape recorder closer to him.

He nods enthusiastically. "Oh, man. Their harmonies are ridiculous."

Kirkwood and I are both children of '80s Top 40 radio, and as such, we spent our formative years listening to such confections as Duran Duran and Madonna. Unlike some of my peers--who seem born on a cloud of aesthetic purity, the spirit children of Thurston Moore and Patti Smith--I didn't really discover indie rock till I was in college. Until 15 or 16, my record collection remained a mishmash of Kool & the Gang, Lionel Richie, Huey Lewis and Whitney Houston. And I loved it.

Like almost all Top 40 artists, those musicians spoke a language of banal sentimentality. "Oh, I wanna dance with somebody," warbled Whitney Houston. "I'm truly, truly in love with you," emoted Lionel Richie. To a sophisticated adult, the words are trite, but to me, they were poetry. As I grew older, I searched for songs that were edgier but that still had the kind of overflowing feeling I could relate to. If you were to crack the journal of lyrics I kept through my sophomore year, you would find a bevy of Guns 'N Roses tunes, attributed to one "William Axl Rose." And if I were 15 today, I would probably scribble the lyrics to "My Favorite Scar" in that 10th-grade notebook--the part where Kirkwood sings, "I hope you get what you need/'Cause I won't be those things in your magazines." Instead, at 30, I sing at the top of my lungs as I drive down the highway but feel a certain shame. I guess that's why they call it a guilty pleasure.

Not surprisingly, the audience for The Vanished skews heavily toward the Converse-and-black-hoodies set. At a recent concert at Virgin Megastore, part of the chain's nationwide tsunami benefit, I am practically the oldest person in the audience, alongside kids with braces and acne, kids with hair gelled into Mohawks or a kind of stiff origami.

Amid one of the between-song pauses, a girl in the audience inexplicably yells out something about being a lesbian, and Kirkwood responds by saying, "Are you a lesbian? Cool. Embrace that. Embrace that about yourself." It's half-jokey front man patter, but he means it, too. And I start to realize that these are probably not the popular kids, the student council kids; instead, they are the freaks and the drama geeks and the AP nerds and the ones who will grow up to be the most interesting people. And while I might hear banal angst in songs like "Latchkey Princess" and "The Anatomy of Desperation," they hear real stories about the strangeness of adulthood, about parents who disappoint and abandon, about kids who flail and flounder. After listening to "My Favorite Scar" an estimated five gazillion times, I am surprised to hear Kirkwood say it is not just about a romantic breakup--it is also about the mother who left him at 6 years old and the relative who died in an accident. "Wake me when it's over," the indelible chorus goes. "Tell me when the feeling's gone. I always knew that you'd be my favorite scar."

And the kids know every word. Although the band often opens its set with the single, on Thursday, it's the closer, and when they launch into it, a few of the kids hold their cell phones aloft and shoot pictures of the band. They are bouncing on their toes and swaying and mouthing every lyric. And, as it turns out, so am I.

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Sarah Hepola