2 a.m. Wakeup Call
Chris Vrenna is undoubtedly one of the most talented musicians and producers around. From his stint in Nine Inch Nails to his career as a remixer for various artists, Vrenna has left an indelible mark on contemporary music.
Vrenna currently records under the tweaker moniker. He has just released his second album, 2a.m. Wakeup Call, a concept album about being awake in a dreamlike state of existence. The songs evoke a sense of desperate nocturnalism, restlessness and drowsiness. It is a concept album that wraps lush melodies around diverse vocals and instrumentation. On paper this sounds like a great idea. However, upon execution, it falls somewhat flat.
The first track, “Ruby, ” is wonderful. It features another collaboration between Vrenna and Will Oldham (Palace, Bonnie “Prince” Billy etc…). Oldham’s powerful voice clearly resonates until it is interspersed with, and eventually overcome by, some annoying heavy guitars. “Cauterized” is a so-so cascading, swirling instrumental. “Worse Than Yesterday” is terrific. It features Mellowdrone backed by winding trip-hop beats. Robert Smith joins the fray, singing on “Truth Is,” alongside a sashaying percussion track that bleeds into a dirge of electric guitars. It’s not great, but not terrible either. “Remorseless” is a snazzy, electrode poppy instrumental that mixes a zigzag breakbeat with blippy electronic sirens. For “Pure Genius,” David Sylvian once again teams up with his pal Vrenna, this time with lackluster results. This is a meandering track that never lifts off. “Pure Genius” is pure drivel.
However, all is not lost. During the last half of the album, Vrenna finds his niche, sticks to it and again shows flashes of brilliance. This part of the record is darker, more nightmarish and spooky. There is a sense of loss and fear prevalent on “It’s Still Happening,” a well-orchestrated number that sounds like it was lifted from a NiN session. Walkmen vocalist Hamilton Leifthauser’s loud and strong lyrics shine, resulting in one of the album’s better moments. Another is “The House That I Grew Up In,” featuring Johnny Marr. This distressing instrumental opens with a fuzzy recording of the “Star Spangled Banner” that dissolves into Marr’s cheerier guitar playing meshed over a sprawling and majestic backing melody. Vrenna continues his dark turn with the album’s finale, the melancholic “Crude Sunlight.” Elysian Fields’ singer Jennifer Charles provides plenty of atmosphere with her spooky vocals sung over Vrenna’s slowed, sullen tempo. It is the perfect end to the album, one that haunts you for a while, never quite leaving your subconscious.
Overall, it is sad that 2a.m. Wakeup Call isn’t as good as it could be. Chris Vrenna is a masterful producer and musician, but he doesn’t really craft intriguing songs. His instrumentals and backing music are interesting if not sometimes disturbing. But the moral here is that you can put all the guest musicians in one place, but you still must have the one solid thing that holds it all together, the actual song itself. Many of these songs just plod along without doing anyting exciting. It’s like his guest singers are just showing up or phoning it in. There is no heart, no passion. Despite this, 2a.m. Wakeup Call remains a good album that could be a lot better.