'The OC' Onstage

People often wonder what sort of “important” things young, white, middle-class kids have to write songs about. If you were to ask most pop-punk band songwriters, they might say, “girls, loneliness, friends’ drug addictions, the curse of making lots of money …” and perhaps “girls” one more time, for emphasis. However, if you asked Andrew McMahon, the songwriter behind Jack’s Mannequin (and Something Corporate), he could add his own bullet point to the short list — cancer.

Above and Background photos Courtesy of www.Jacksmannequin.com

He hasn’t yet had the time to write any “important” songs about his struggle with acute lymphatic leukemia, but he has finally returned to the spotlight after his recovery. Diagnosed in May, McMahon was lucky enough to receive a stem-cell transplant from his sister in August, in time to see the release of his new project’s debut album. Since then, the young singer-pianist has begun to focus some of his energy toward cancer awareness, playing a fictional cancer benefit on the WB’s teen drama “One Tree Hill.” He’s also on tour, finally strong enough to play tracks from his Jack’s Mannequin debut, Everything in Transit.

The album itself is a summery slice of SoCal pop-rock, about girls, loneliness and the like, punctuated by McMahon’s ringing Vanessa Carlton-style piano and, surprisingly, the tight drumming of veteran rocker Tommy “My Penis is Huge” Lee. The album seems tailor-made for on-vacation college students (at least the ones that aren’t put off by the often trite lyrics and boring predictability), featuring such well-practiced activities as crashing on couches, worrying about girls — who doesn’t? — and just trying to do nothing most of the time. It claims to be a concept album about an alienating return back home to Venice Beach (Though McMahon is an Orange County native) after a few years away from the sand and the drama. It’s a shame that McMahon’s piano remains in the background throughout the album, content to merely accent the power chords that make up his batch of simple piano-punk-pop. Regardless, it’s the perfect companion to Fox’s “OC” mythology (though apparently only cool enough for “One Tree Hill”), like a sad windows-down drive along Highway 101 on a summer day, just when the gray marine layer rolls in.

Some critics call McMahon the Ben Folds of his genre, but McMahon lacks the bitter cleverness of that balding hipster. With his apparent love for all things pop and his hopeless romanticism, he is more Chris Martin than Ben Folds — but no one would argue that the man can’t write a pop song. He certainly has more potential than his spiky-haired peers in the skate shop scene, and maybe he knows it. In the Jack’s Mannequin track, “I’m Ready,” he whispers, “My life has become a boring pop song, and everyone’s singing along.” Perhaps if McMahon stepped out of the shadow of Something Corporate’s unspectacular power-chord pop, he wouldn’t have that problem.