At first glance, Audio Learning Center appears to have little in common with its oblique namesake, the Belmont Learning Center.
That center was built at ridiculous costs directly above a seismically challenged, environmentally toxic patch of Southern California oilfield and then immediately abandoned. Audio Learning Center does maintain its share of corrosive sentiments underneath a shimmering tunefulness, but, unlike the Belmont Learning Center, the band's structure is no more grand than it has to be and is entirely absent of fault-lines.
ALC is one of Portland's most respected local bands--and its second album on Vagrant records, Cope Park, is among the new year's most awaited releases--but the group resists easy categorization. Far afield from Vagrant's more punky roster, the band's distinct pop-rock doesn't resonate with any specific inspiration. They plough a practical blend of DIY recording with upmarket production, eschewing indie aesthetics for a proper sound. The band comprises talented and buzz-hardened musicians grafting catchy, poignant aural landscapes to incisive songwriting. Admirable, yeah, but damned hard to profile.
Evolutionary stages of Audio Learning Center have played around town since the start of 1998. Following the dissolution of alt-heroes Pond, co-creator Chris Brady brought his overstuffed songbook and churning muse to guitarist Steven Birch--a Portland mainstay whose résumé ranges from seminal lineups of Slack, the Oblivion Seekers and Sprinkler to an exhausting stint touring with Everclear. The result, as heard on ALC's debut, Friendships Often Fade Away, blended thoughtful riffs into a bristling, ambitious indie-pop.
That album, recorded piecemeal at the singer's house over a long gestation, with drums eventually captured in a Seattle studio, couldn't help but reflect a certain distance. Cope Park, conversely, is the measure of a group realized. Every bit of every track was played as a band. Brady, Birch and new drummer Paul Johnson recorded all of the material in Brady's basement even as super-producer Joe Chiccarelli (Frank Zappa, Beck, the Offspring) watched from the stairs, frowning.
Cope Park somehow squeezes the raw, minimal, affected ardor of basement recordings through the sound lab for drum crashes impossibly full and flourishes of production so rare and tasteful as to doubt their origins. Guitars bob and weave, underlining passages, exclaiming, arousing, laying explosive counterpoint as Brady's vocals struggle and shine. Long stretches of a swaggering, plaintive indie sneer suddenly betray a lovely, tremulous falsetto before fading to a wounded, theatrical huskiness nudging XTC's Andy Partridge.
It's a wonderful trick that never seems like a trick, every breath aching, posturing for the song, in the best way. There's a craftsmanship about a band that demands hi-fi quality from basement rawk, poetic cadence from personal trauma. This sound remains hard to pigeonhole within a modern tradition, and that's sort of sad.
Audio Learning Center celebrates the release of Cope Park with Now It's Overhead and Statistics Friday, April 2, at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 10 pm. Cover. 21+.