With the majority of Vagrant's big guns putting out disappointing albums this year [thus far, at least - I'm still waiting to hear the new Get Up Kids record], leave it to an unknown band from the Pacific Northwest to put the label back on track.
Audio Learning Center consists of ex-members of Pond and Sprinkler [and Everclear, sort of]. While the names aren't too telling, both bands had cultlike followings in the northwest and both had signed to Sub Pop Records. These guys were there for the rise and fall of the Seattle "scene," and have probably lived through more cliched rock experiences than most of Vagrant's roster has ever dreamed of. This definitely shows up in singer Christopher Brady's lyrics. Just like the gorgeous CD artwork depicts a fragmented yet highly artistic canvas, so does Brady's words. Tracks like the grungy, Weezer-esque "Favorite" playfully mock people who become obsessed with bands that are no bigger than the people themselves. "Winter" is quite the contrast from the irony of "Favorite" - The song clocks in at over 7 minutes, telling the stories of a man and woman who both lost their jobs and are living utterly wasteful lives. The song's crescendo reaches a fever pitch at the 5 minute mark as Christopher wails "Trying to pretend they took the right road, the path to doors shut along / And failures that have taken too long" among a sea of swirling guitar sounds. Wow is about the only word I can use to sum this song up.
The album's high points are many, and it's low points are few and very far between. I could see Christopher's voice getting on people's nerves sometimes, as it is rather nasal. The band could benefit from vocal harmonies at times, too - tracks like "The Shell" sound great as they are, but another voice wouldn't hurt anything.
As for the band's overall sound, it's not emo, it's not really punk, it's just more of an amalgamation of the old grunge movement coupled with your obvious indie rock influences [Pavement, Sebadoh, etc.]. The band does it well, especially in "Broken" and "Dedication." They're not exactly the overall standouts on the record, but both represent the overall sound that I believe ALC is shooting for. The band isn't driven solely by guitar, bass or drums - all three mesh together to form a really, really solid rock band. The majority of the songs on the record clock in at over 4 minutes, which allows the band to really flesh out the ideas present within the song structure and build on them repeatedly. This is one of the few albums that I own that I don't mind being over an hour long.
I mentioned the artwork earlier, but I really think it needs special attention. The CD comes in a digipak case within a cutout cardboard sleeve that serves as the "frame" for the picture on the cover. Turn the album over, and the track listing is written on the back of the "canvas." It's really, really clever and it adds to the overall feeling of the release.
This isn't going to sell 100,000 copies nor will you be seeing Audio Learning Center on M2 any time soon. Vagrant took a big risk putting a debut record of a virtually unknown band out. I applaud them for doing so - Next to the Anniversary's "Your Majesty," this is the best thing Vagrant has put out in 2002. I'll be playing this album for years to come.