It might seem peculiar to find Austin rock septet Alpha Rev on Hollywood Records, the Disney-owned home of the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus. Alpha Rev was formed in 2005 by ace Jeff Buckley and Thom Yorke-esque local singer Casey McPherson after the breakup of his much-buzzed Endochine. But Alpha Rev is hardly the strangest presence on the label — that’d almost certainly be Orange County metal band Atreyu — and the band’s not even the most oddball local signee in Hollywood’s history (hello, Butthole Surfers). Being signed to Hollywood worked out pretty well for Fastball in the late ’90s. And there are certain perks to being signed to a major label with as much promotional pull as Hollywood; Alpha Rev as of late has enjoyed plum placement on VH-1 and even an appearance on ABC Family dramedy “Greek.”
But listening to “New Morning,” Alpha Rev’s second full-length studio album and first for Hollywood, it’s hard not to wonder if all that major label power meant any pressure to keep the sound … well, a little dull, truthfully. “New Morning” is a well-produced, technically strong album, with reliably solid guitar lines and excellent contributions on violin and cello from secret weapons Brian Batch and Dave Wiley, respectively, but across 11 tracks of mass market-friendly soaring radio pop, it never breaks out and rocks quite the way you want it to. The opening title track sets the tone, with a strummy acoustic guitar intro, light strings and soaring vocals — vocals that are strong but never quite as quivering and emotive as McPherson is at his best. A similar aesthetic is found on such radio-friendly, adult contemporary-channeling numbers as “Phoenix Burn,” the vaguely Owl City-evoking “Alone With You” and the soft, midtempo closing ballad “Goodbye From the Start.”
There are glimpses aplenty of something more interesting at work here. “When Did I Wake Up” is an uplifting guitar rocker that gives McPherson the chance to show off his Endochine-era soloing chops. McPherson faces his demons on “White Fences” (“And I feel like I’m in hell/As I tried to save myself/I didn’t think I needed help/Was it too late walking through the wasteland?”), which has all the power you’d expect from a man who’s become a passionate advocate for depression awareness and suicide prevention. And “Face Down,” with its handclaps, swaggering guitar line and funky keys, evokes ’70s blue-eyed soul in the vein of Chicago. It’s the most fun “New Morning” has to offer. But nothing has, say, the sinister staccato charm of Alpha Rev’s “Stuck In A Crowd (Prufrock Among The Cannibals)” or the sexy, smoky jazz of “Midnight,” both songs off the self-titled debut EP. And the band has plenty of power live. Alpha Rev’s got the right stuff to make an impression — the band just needs to loosen up a little.