When "Harmonium," the first song on Rogue Wave's third album, Asleep at Heaven's Gate, comes chugging out of the speakers with the extended piano and bass intro sounding eerily like Coldplay, you realize the days of Rogue Wave operating as a lo-fi, bedroom recording act are truly dead and buried. Their previous album, Descended Like Vultures, still had the feel of guys in a small room struggling to keep things under control, eking out studio time, working on a tight budget. With their move from Sub Pop to Brushfire and the patronage of Jack Johnson, the band has the time and resources to let their arena rock tendencies run wild. The guitars are buffed to a fine gloss, studio tricks and computer effects pop up all over the place, and the overall sound is huge. Huge, but hollow at the core. The little bits of dialogue and stray instruments that end many of the songs aren't going to fool anyone into thinking this is an organic, homemade product. No, this is the band's bid for the big-time, and in their favor, they really go for it, filling the record with loud choruses perfect for modern rock radio. Even Zach Rogue's vocals have morphed. In the past his singing was pretty straightforward, tender, and able to connect with the listener through innocent simplicity and honesty. Here, Rogue has inexplicably transformed himself into a belter, a showoff in a Mark Kozelek in the verses, Bono in the choruses kind of way. Basically he sounds affected where he sounded honest before, and that can't help but get in the way of the songs. Even the low-key songs more in line with past records like the pretty "Christian in Black" and the moody "Missed" sound phony when Rogue starts twisting his vowels. If he had sung these songs with more heart and less technique, it would have helped immeasurably.
So will all these changes work? Will Rogue Wave "make it"? They just might, because as empty and homogenous as Asleep at Heaven's Gate sounds on the surface, Zach Rogue knows how to write hooks. A handful of the songs, like "Lake Michigan," "Like I Needed," and "Harmonium," sound perfect for network dramas, ideal for late-night runs through campus or pleasant Sunday afternoons throwing the ball around. The rest of the albums sails by with a mix of uptempo rockers ("Own Your Own Home," "Phonytown"), jangly midtempo ballads ("Ghost"), and dramatic ("Fantasies") and slow weepers ("Cheaper Than Therapy") that neither impress nor offend. You can't fault a band for trying to make a living and sell records; Rogue Wave isn't running a charity. What you can blame them for is making a record that trades in originality, real emotion, and often inspired playing for alt-rock clichés, slick production, and a general feeling that you've heard it all before. Asleep at Heaven's Gate isn't a bad record; it's an unnecessary one, and there's really no excuse for that.