Is there an unwritten rule that artists on the emo-rific Vagrant Records roster must over-emote? Starting with flagship act Dashboard Confessional and moving down through the ranks, an alarming number of Vagrant bands believe that more is more: more anguish, more pain, more loneliness. It’s enough to wear a man down. And so it goes with Portland, OR, trio Audio Learning Center, whose sophomore CD, Cope Park, is filled with enough torment to last another band an entire career.
I will grant ALC this much: Cope Park‘s cover image — a handful of microphone and guitar jacks plugging into the aortas and ventricles of a heart — may well be the definitive emo album cover. The songs on Cope Park bleed out of lead singer Chris Brady’s heart and through the speakers, but such immediacy and pain doesn’t translate into memorable songs.
Brady wrings pain from every syllable, and while the songs aren’t always about him, the characters he describes are tortured souls nevertheless. A lonely traveler gets drunk and decides, “God don’t shed his light on me,” on “The Neverwills”; the title track describes a strained mother/daughter relationship; “California” alludes to a pained hospital stay. Brady’s writing voice is to be commended — too many albums in this vein revolve around unfaithful girls and/or shy narrators — but his singing voice leaves something to be desired: he sounds like Wayne Coyne practicing his impression of Dashboard Confessional frontman Chris Carrabba, and he’s got a bad habit of wrenching every lyric out of the deepest, darkest place in his soul, rendering lyrics like “Car”‘s “I’ve got a car, it runs pretty good” unintentionally comical. Granted, Brady’s been writing songs for over a decade — his first band, Pond, signed with Sub Pop back in 1993 — but he shows no willingness to ease up on the emotional throttle and let the songs, um, speak for themselves. On the few instances where Brady does ease up, the songs are much breezier. “Happy Endings” is, of course, morose, but it finds Brady singing, not blurting, lines like “If love is stronger than truth / Then I’d rather live my lie.” The effect Brady’s restraint has on the song is remarkable; it may still not be your cup of tea, but at least it’s palatable. There is hope yet for ALC.
I’d be less critical of Cope Park as a whole if the songs were catchier. There’s a few moments where the instruments are locked in — Brady’s muscular bassline on “The Neverwills”, Steven Birch’s staccato guitar blasts on “Car”, Charlie Campbell’s bluesy (!) slide guitar on “Happy Endings” — but the album lacks the sufficient hooks to draw a listener in and keep them there. Heck, even Carrabba had the sense to add a backing band to muscle up the diary entries he calls lyrics on A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar.
As I write this review the day after having listened to Cope Park, I can’t recall the sound of a single tune off the album; it’s in one ear and out the other. Perhaps ALC have it in them to unify all these parts — heart, guts, ears — into a cohesive album and still traffic in pain. As long as there are such things as high-schoolers, albums about alientation will never go out of style, and bands like Audio Learning Center can always count on a paycheck from record labels like Vagrant. That said, until ALC write some memorable tunes, they’ll be no one’s choice for misery.