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Audio Learning Center
Friendships Often Fade Away
Vagrant Records

It speaks well for the state of rock music when a solid album like Audio Learning Centerís newest release comes off flat compared to music coming out with a unique and vibrant artistic vision. Friendships Often Fade Away has a solid songwriting core that moves smoothly through familiar themes and sounds. Products of the northwest scene that produced so much substantial music in the nineties, songwriters Christopher Brady and Steven Birch seem completely at home in the elements that defined that scene: a personal and sometimes sardonic existentialism carried on a guitar-based sound as intimate and sincere as it is rockiní. The strength of this approach only carries the music so far, however, and Audio Learning Centerís debut LP often feels like a rehashing of a familiar sound.

On the other hand, this album might be a bright spot on a radar cluttered with mediocrity for listeners who either are not familiar with or could not care less for underground music. This album seems to point to the tale of two sonic cities that currently defines our musical culture. There are plenty of bands doing fun and important work on the fringes, but the difficulty in finding them might create the illusion that they are few in number. Meanwhile, commercial music seems so bland and insignificant that a mere fifteen minutes of time spent with the radio might lead you to spend a week locked up in your room. Audio Learning Center does not fit into either of these categories, and their appeal might lie in just that.

Lyrically, Friendships Often Fade Away progresses through several different moods but consistently examines the plight of an individual struggling to feel at home in his world. Although few recent lyricists have had the genius to navigate the human condition with any conviction (Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke, and Jeff Mangum in my book), the primal appeal of existential observations generally works in the songwriterís favor. Audiences tend to have enormously wide ranges of appreciation, and elegance rarely serves as the defining factor in these judgments. While Bradyís words offer little to no insight into this problem that has plagued philosophers since "the modern individual" has been a recognized phenomenon, his themes will likely connect with listeners, if only in a general sense. For those of you who cannot stomach an entire album of meditations on failed relationships, lame jobs, and general depression over an inability to function in any sort of healthy relationship with the world, Audio Learning Center throws in a few tracks that are down right cute. "Favorite" brings into vivid reality the life of a fan who may enjoy his new favorite band a bit too much. "Prescription" offers a sarcastic look at the role of medicine as a means to keep the singer sane. And "I Love Robot" explores the universal experience of falling in love with a dysfunctional robot.

The music on Friendships Often Fade Away certainly feels out of step with current sounds, although it is hard to decide whether it comes as a breath of fresh air from a time when mainstream music was actually worth listening to or as a failure to take steps in any significant new direction. Building on a strong sense of movement and flow from the beginning, the album gets groovy on several occasions. Unfortunately, every time the music picks up in rock-ability, it loses ground in originality. "Favorite" has a Hole song floating in it somewhere; "The Dream" comes off as a mix between Radiohead and the Stone Temple Pilots with Audio Learning Centerís own version of Pacific lyricism. All of these songs would have felt at home on the radio in the mid-nineties. The music comes off surprisingly optimistic given the lyrical drudgeries. Paul Johnson delivers peppy drum work to augment Birchís equally powerful guitar lines. The combination alters between straightforward grooves and subtle rhythmic movements while Brady adds simple but important bass parts and effective melodies. All of this makes it a greater shame that the band could not come up with better lyrics to add to such a strong musical core.

The call on this album comes down to your faith in the current condition of rock. Perhaps the following viewpoints will help you make a decision upon the next visit to your local record store: a) I spend all of my time disappointed in the radio, and I long for the days when bands were willing to come up with a decent riff rather than throw a quasi-macho croon over a sustained minor chord; b) I have moved into a world of rock light years ahead of anything mainstream and Iím not looking back. If you can appreciate this breakdown, then you can tell where you stand on this album. When it comes right down to it, however, my personal motto of "the weirder the better" should not distract you from Friendships Often Fade Away. Audio Learning Center may not know how to spell "cutting edge," but they sure can put some solid tunes together.

— Matt King

Track Listing:

  1. The Shell
  2. Hand Me Downs
  3. Favorite
  4. Winter
  5. The Dream
  6. A Dedication
  7. Broken
  8. Prescription
  9. December
  10. If You Choose
  11. I Love Robot

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