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Chalk Dinosaur releases a charmer of a debut, with help from Harrison Wargo 

When Margaret Welsh covered Chalk Dinosaur for City Paper in March, the fledgling band was playing out regularly, but trying to replace a member. Initially composed of two sets of brothers -- John and Joe O'Hallaron and Matt and Rich Bradford -- the band had lost a guitarist when Joe moved away for a job.

The fortuitous replacement turned out to be Harrison Wargo, recently of The Morning Light, on guitar, piano and vocals. I interviewed Wargo nearly four years ago, when he was the bassist for pop-punk outfit Transition; in the time since, it seems he's gotten pretty handy in the recording studio.

At least that's what I gather from Chalk Dinosaur's brand-new self-titled album: slick, finger-snapping pop that doesn't skimp on the backing vocals, piano or mellotron. Performed almost entirely by Wargo and guitarist/vocalist John O'Hallaron, the album was recorded this summer in Wargo's basement studio. 

Overall, the 11-song album seems less a "band album" than a showcase for O'Hallaron's songs and very Ben Gibbard-ish vocals. (Drummer Rich Bradford plays on one track -- the faux-western "John Wayne" -- and bassist Matt Bradford doesn't seem to appear at all.) This makes more sense when you go looking for a band Web site and end up at johnohallaron.com, where you find 91 -- that's a nine with a one after it -- song demos, plus lyrics and photos showing O'Hallaron's CMU dorm-room recording setup.

The album opens with "Fairweather," a jaunty, Beatle-y piano-rocker with an epic key change at the end. And while the songs that follow are more guitar-driven, they don't let up a bit with the hooks. As Welsh noted, the band's influences seem fairly clear: Weezer, the Beach Boys, and so on into the pantheon. And since Chalk Dinosaur favors classic pop changes and structures, there are flashes of similarity to other musicians who also draw from them -- The Ramones, Todd Rundgren, Jonathan Richman, Queen, maybe even Ozzy.

Perhaps the album's most telling song is "Scarves and Stripes," an affirmation of awkward-but-natural suburban uncool, and a wry send-up of "hip indie rockers." "Scarves and stripes / if it's mainstream, it can't be right," O'Hallaron mocks, "Obscure, experimental electronic bands / Soft-spoken metaphoric guitar man."

That O'Hallaron is himself quite handy with metaphor and guitar -- and that the next song starts with an electronic beat -- are the kind of gentle ironies that could make you like Chalk Dinosaur even more. Catch them this Sat., Nov. 28, at Garfield Artworks, with David Israel and Professor Purple. (The show is presented by CP contributor Manny Theiner.)

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