Putting a new spin on an old formula doesn't always make for an improvement on that formula.
Ten years after its release, Radiohead's seminal OK Computer is still spawning imitations.
Copeland's third album, Eat, Sleep, Repeat, sounds as though its entire library of instrument effects and production tricks has been borrowed from the book of OK Computer -- it's a virtual sonic twin. Guitars chime, bells ring, chords change in unexpected ways, and drums appear without warning. And then there's the matter of lead vocalist Aaron Marsh, who is perhaps the most dead-on accurate of the Thom Yorke imitators as I've heard in the entire 10 years that I've actually paid close attention to Radiohead; from the tenor wail to the hopeless mope to the light way he flips into his his head voice, Marsh has obviously been studying. And, it has to be said, his studying has paid off, as in a lot of ways (particularly the less nasal tone and better sense of pitch that Marsh wields) he actually improves upon Yorke's original.
Really, though, this sonic choice is kind of a surprising direction for Copeland to take, given that the tales Copeland is spinning atop those startlingly familiar backdrops are personal ones, stories of self-exploration, and enlightenment, and (in a pleasingly not-sappy way) love. Radiohead, of course, had ennui and fear at the center of its lyrical intentions, sentiments flipped by Copeland into something far more progressive than reactive.
So does this new implementation of an old palette work?
Well, sort of. Everything is in its right place, the production sounds important and weighty, and Eat, Sleep, Repeat simply smacks of a band trying to experiment, trying to move beyond the restrictions of its own previous iterations. Opener "Where's My Head?" makes this clear from the outset, actually taking as many cues from Wilco's classic album-opener "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart", with drums falling all over themselves and what sounds like a vibraphone providing most of the melodic wall behind Marsh's odd, amelodic, yet building vocal lines. The title track sees Marsh asking "Do you think it's unwise / To go and break yourself on this one / When all this time you didn't know love?", even as the instruments evoke "Subterranean Homesick Alien" with a melodic, quickly-strummed distorted guitar floating over a much smoother (yet still fairly unconventional) rhythm track. And then there's the piano-laden "Love Affair", a slow burn drawing chord-change cues from "Lucky", at least until a heavily multitracked chorus with the insistent chords of "Karma Police" takes over and completely changes the identity of the track. This transition is actually one of the most startling moments on an album with almost no surprises.
It is actually that last thought that dooms Eat, Sleep, Repeat to mediocrity -- while it is an album that finds the artists involved traveling in directions those artists have never gone before, there's very little here that the typical listener isn't going to have heard before elsewhere. Sure, there are a lot of strings, a lot of melodic percussion, and a whole lot of non-traditional song structures, but it's all been done before, and mostly better, by other artists. A song like "Control Freak" is insistent enough to be appealing, but marred by a constant refrain of "It's/You're freakin' me out". "By My Side" sounds like a pleasant take on the Radiohead formula until you realize Keane pulled this off already, and Keane's version is catchier. Even the unnecessarily long closing track has its moments, most of which come about via the parallel lines of the vocals and pianos, but it meanders and moves along and ends with very little fanfare, hardly providing the sort of exclamation point that an album like Eat, Sleep, Repeat needs.
There is but one point on Eat, Sleep, Repeat where Copeland manages to find a unique vision -- ironically enough, it is the one point on the album where the lead vocals are provided by someone other than Marsh. On "The Last Time He Saw Dorie", a virtual unknown named Anna Becker shows up right at the end, singing in this beautifully tentative, yet pure tone: "Live, live, live / Live because you love, love, love / And love will make you give, give, give..." and so on -- it's a beautifully direct sentiment on an album that often gets caught trying too hard for weight and importance. If the album were filled with such dueling approaches to songcraft, it could have been something great; as it is, it's merely an album for those already smitten with Copeland, a snapshot of a band in transition, a band that feels destined for greatness, but just doesn't quite yet understand how to achieve it.