The video for The Fray’s 2005 breakout single, “Over My Head (Cable Car)” opens with a wide-angle shot of a large brick high school building, a tall bell tower rising over impeccably green grass. The bell rings, and we cut to inside the building, where neatly dressed students stand and start singing. The line of uniformed boys exits the classroom and walks down the hallway. Sun shines through giant windows, and rows of lockers artistically grafittied with the song’s lyrics line the sides of the hall.
This is my high school. But it’s not.
Yes, emo-soft-rock boy band The Fray did film their video at East High School in Denver, Colorado, my alma mater. However, the grungy, unruly East High School I remember looks little like The Fray’s artificially lit, well-behaved version.
“The Fray,” the band’s sophomore effort, has a lot in common with their toned-down, uniformed version of my high school: their songs trudge on by like a row of sandy-haired boys in identical blazers. Repetitive arpeggios, the piano’s answer to power chords, muddle through uninspired guitars and an overused snare drum; ultimately, each of the 10 piano-driven ballads on the album is indistinguishable from the last.
The Fray’s songwriting tactic seems to involve repeating the same phrase over and over and over again. And then, after a brief piano interlude, repeating it again. Usually this phrase is, conveniently, also the song’s title, but not always: the last minute of “Never Say Never” features lead singer Isaac Slade wailing, “Don’t let me go” over a dozen times. I counted.
There are a few exceptions to the general doldrums of the album: the beginning of “We Build Then We Break” is a promisingly weird, trance-like beat; however, Slade’s trademark whine make the song slide back into dull uniformity.
The closing track, “Happiness,” strangely includes a gospel choir harmonizing with Slade on the final repetitive phrases (“She’ll be home”). It’s possible that this is an attempt to shake things up a little, but it just feels awkward and forced. This song also includes the phrase, “Happiness is a firecracker sitting on my headboard,” so maybe there is a deeper meaning that I am just not understanding. For example, maybe it is the Fourth of July and Slade is lighting firecrackers … in bed … and there is a gospel choir there. I don’t know.
One thing I do know is that “You Found Me,” the album’s first single, will lend itself well to car-aoke: the inane, repetitive lyrics (“Lost and insecure / you found me / you found me / lying on the floor”) are easy to memorize and belt out slightly off-key. I’m not going to lie, sometimes when I am driving in my car listening to the radio I may or may not occasionally turn the volume up and sing along to “How to Save a Life.” Loudly. With feeling.
Ultimately, “The Fray” is just another whiny soundtrack album, designed for those moments on “Grey’s Anatomy” when nothing can express Meredith’s inner emotional turmoil better than repeating a pained phrase over power chords. In an earlier season, “How to Save a Life” taught the poor interns how to save lives. With The Fray as my guide, this season I predict we will find Meredith “lost and insecure / lying on the floor.” Cue the soundtrack.