Alien Boy played their last show under amber stained glass at a strip mall all-you-can-eat salad bar. The four-piece band jammed with heartbreaking energy. The performance would have brought tears to the eyes of any one of the dozen on-lookers, if any of the dozen on-lookers had a soul left.
Portland, Oregon’s Alien Boy has been writing a smashing brand of emo/independent rock since back in 2015. One gets a sense from Sleeping Lessons, their debut full-length album, that Alien Boy is really taking themselves seriously as a songwriting team. While the performances on Stay Alive and their ferociously bold debut EP, Never Getting Over It, are topnotch evocative rock in the spirit of Jawbreaker and The Smiths, they felt a little like pastiche. With Sleeping Lessons, the band isn’t writing scatter shot anymore.
By and large, the vast majority of the tracks on Sleeping Lessons are of the disconnected lovers variety, communication lines shattered, definitions altered. They’re distinctly young but hardly pegged as juvenile. If the album is a bomb, the fuse is the first track, “Somewhere Without Me,” a bombastic, five-minute burst about two lovers losing their common language. The bittersweet, nostalgic sentiments are infused with heart-rending bits of poetry. Lines like “we talk in my sleep all the time/ do you remember what you said to me last night?” stop me in my tracks, years after they were part of my life.
On the second track, “If We Don’t Speak,” the instrumentation takes a more upbeat turn. The real impact is held back by drab recordings, though, specifically on the vocals, but the no-less-than-bombastic crash of guitars makes up for some of what’s lost. Gloomy downers “Only Posers Fall In Love” and the closer, “Sleeping Lessons,” fall under their sad boy category of storytelling, and these guys write great sad boy songs, the latter of which is the painful depiction of one’s struggle with body image in the loss of love. On “Just Kids” and “600 Days,” Alien Boy shows off the ability to get sweet and sentimental with the slow and mid-tempo song-construction, yet keep up the façade of confusion.
The album shows a few imperfections, few of which have to do with performance. On a few tracks, the production feels drab and gray, especially with regards to vocal separation. Songs like “On The Ride Back Home (You Know What I Dream Of),” which rely on storytelling, suffer when I really can’t tell what they’re singing about.
Sleeping Lessons is Alien Boy’s best record because it’s their record. There are no covers and none of the cheeky moments of melodrama (although it bears mentioning that their cover of “Hand In Glove” is terrific and their version of “Wonderwall” hilarious). The band shows off their influences, which is fine, but they’re not so blatant. I’m sure some heartless listeners will deride this as by-the-numbers power pop, but the fuel here is pure songwriting alchemy. This is an admirable ten-song collection, showcasing one of Portland’s best bands as they take off for flight.