Digital Vein (Analog Heart Music)
The mania surrounding David Cook was once so frenzied that the audience hardly seemed to notice his most notable opening act — Justin Bieber — at Cricket Wireless Amphitheater in 2009.
The 14,000 people who cheered Cook’s headlining performance witnessed the Kansas City area debut of the nascent pop star, thanks to his victory in the seventh season of “American Idol” in 2008. But the proverbial 15 minutes of fame goes by especially quickly for people who achieved renown through reality television, and the Cook-inspired hullabaloo has since dwindled to overwhelming indifference from all but his most dedicated fans.
The man once based in Blue Springs has appeared in a string of successively smaller venues for subsequent appearances in his home market. An October concert at the Lied Center in Lawrence seemed to reverse that dispiriting trend. Alas, the entire audience huddled with Cook on the stage of the concert hall.
But the audience in Bonner Springs back in 2009 didn’t hear Cook perform anything as potent as the material on his surprisingly vital new album Digital Vein.
Cook hasn’t conceded, and Digital Vein is the best album of his career. It’s unclear whether he thrives under reduced expectations or is desperately attempting to reclaim the celebrity that evaporated years ago. Whatever the inspiration, Cook has crafted an appealing summation of his talents.
Rather than featuring a new approach, Digital Vein is a culmination of the sound Cook has always favored. After all, the impassioned mainstream-rock vocals that so impressed “American Idol” judges weren’t imposed on Cook by some savvy television producer. Years before he competed on TV, Cook plied a similar sound in Kansas City rock clubs.
Those years of working in pre-“Idol” obscurity and his subsequent career under a brighter spotlight have led to melodramatic large-scale rock, and Digital Vein is as satisfying as recent efforts by like-minded bands including Shinedown and Third Eye Blind.
As is the case with those critically derided groups, Cook doesn’t attempt to be innovative, edgy or fashionable. His sole concern is creating sincere melodic rock that’s capable of connecting with listeners who prefer to the comfort of familiar sounds.
Digital Vein may lack nuance, but it easily achieves Cook’s modest goals. Each of the album’s twelve songs places his earnest voice in immediately accessible settings.
Covering the Chris Isaak hit “Wicked Game” isn’t a particularly clever idea, but Cook’s sleek rendition of the sultry ballad showcases his improved vocals. Once prone to over-emoting, Cook has realized that louder isn’t necessarily better.
His regression into his old habit of over-singing on “I’m Gonna Love You” makes it the album’s most lackluster selection. And a throwback approach hinders the album’s best songs. Only the dated production prevents “From Here To Zero” from being an ideal pop song, while “Criminals” is among the songs that are in thrall of Nickelback and the theatricality of “Kiss & Tell” alludes to the decade-old era in which Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco scored a few modern-rock hits.
But Cook’s newly restrained singing style gives the pretty, mid-tempo “Better Than Me” an appealingly airy feel, and “Wait For Me,” a song about grief, is ideally suited to Cook’s heartfelt sensibility.
In spite of its faults, Digital Vein is infused with an overall calm confidence and artistic coherence that were absent on the self-titled 2008 album capitalizing on Cook’s “American Idol” victory. That mediocre cash-in sold more than a million copies. Had it been as impressive as Digital Vein, Cook might still be a star on the magnitude of Justin Bieber.
Bill Brownlee's writing appears weekly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. He blogs about Kansas City’s jazz scene at Plastic Sax.