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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Music: The Myth of The Sophmore Slump

The new issue of beardie-loving music mag Magnet has a column by Corey DuBrowa on the sophmore slump -- second albums that fail to live up to the promise of the first. This is a fairly common trope in rock criticism and has some basis in truth. One theory holds that most artists spend years stockpiling their "good stuff" for album one and then have a much shorter time period to whip up number two.

As I perused the list of albums Magnet came up with I was struck by how many of them I liked, Give 'Em Enough Rope by The Clash, Pretenders II, Room on Fire by The Strokes. With that in mind I thought I'd lay down a list of great second albums, which includes one from Magnet's list of stinkers because uh, they don't know what they're talkin' bout.

1) Bob Dylan - The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
Dylan's debut album announced the arrival of a new star on the folk scene but it was 1963's Freewheelin' that catapoulted him into the ranks of pop genius. "Blowin' in The Wind" alone cemented his songwriter status but add to that "Don't Think Twice, it's Alright" "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Girl From The North Country" and you get a classic album and a touchstone for where one of the greatest American artists in any field would go for the rest of his career.
Here's Bobby doing "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall":

2) Weezer - Pinkerton (1996)
Weezer's self-titled first album was a phenomenon in 1994, selling several million copies and spawning quirky power pop angst hits with "Undone (The Sweater Song)", "Buddy Holly" and "Say it Ain't So". Their second album landed with a thud, shunned by radio, MTV and casual music buyers. Pinkerton was a more obviously dark and aggressive record, dealing with frontman / headcase Rivers Cuomo's wierd fan and groupie relationships, self-loathing, a leg operation and oh yeah, The Mikado. Weezer went on an extended hiatus in the wake of the album's failure but during that time it picked up a devoted cult and is now a favorite among the hardcore Weezerati who welcomed the band back to hitdom in the early 00s.

3) R.E.M. - Reckoning (1984)
R.E.M.'s debut album Murmur hit the nascent alterna-rock scene like a bomb. It was an hermetic, quirky, tuneful yet weird album unlike anything that came before. R.E.M. would have a hard time following it up but as it turns out, they'd never make another record that sounded like it again. If Murmur sounded like the experimental album of a seasoned band, Reckoning was more akin to a typical debut. Accessable and rocking, it's a strong set of songs stripped down to their base elements and helped cement R.E.M. as part of the revival of American "roots" sounds while still keeping their alternative audience intcat and growing: Check out Stipe's hair in the video for "So. Central Rain":

4) Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique (1989)
The Beastie Boy's debut was the biggest selling rap-album ever by the time they got around to prepping the follow-up and the knives were out. There was bad blood because they were white, seen as a novelty act, tagged as misogynist, and behaved in a generally frat boy way on tour. Sure enough Paul's Boutique struggled to sell upon it's release, yet began to gain status from music lovers for it's innovatively groundbreaking and creative use of samples and song structure thanks to producers The Dust Brothers and clever funny and sometimes cerebral rhymes from The Beasties. As with Weezer, what appeared to be a setback at first set the stage for a surprise comeback third album that cemented the band's star status. Here' s the video for "Shake Your Rump":

5) Blondie - Plastic Letters (1977)
Blondie wasn't coming off of a hit when they did Plastic Letters, one of the most underrated albums of 1977. Though their debut had garnered some attention in the UK, they were still considered an also-ran to the other more "serious" bands on the New York scene -- Television, Talking Heads, The Ramones. Plastic Letters had a slar trajectory, doing even better than the debut in Europe but still failing to find favor in their home country. As a record though the band had moved beyond the girl-group aping of the first album and stretched out into evocations of Stax soul on "Rifle Range" (a dead ringer for "In The Twilight Zone" by The Astors) , mid 60's Stonesy cool in "Youth Nabbed as Sniper" and baroque pop-prog with "No Imagination." Here they are doing "Detroit 442":

6) Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory (1991)
Tribe hit the scene in 1990 as part of a wave of positive rap that included De La Soul, Brand Nubian and The Jungle Brothers. As good as their debut was it was The Low End Theory that commenced to mind-blowing, both lyrically and musically. Rappers Q-Tip and Phife Dog effortlessly trade quips and wisdom over exquisiyely tense, stripped down jazz beats. The album is aptly named as the bass lines on songs like "Buggin' Out" seem to exist on another plane entirely, big and goopy and full of portent. Though the sound is spare, it's also detailed, with every song building and moving on an insistent bed of rhythm. Here's the very future looking vid for "Scenario" featuring a pre-stardom Busta Rhymes:

7) The Velvet Underground - White Light/ White Heat (1967)
The Velvets brilliant first album was compromised by their Andy Warhol arranged shotgun marraige with German chanteuse Nico. Compromise is not the word that comes to mind with album number 2 which comes out of the gate blazing and never looks back. There is the occaisional foray into brain scrambling as on the John Cale narrated macabre joke of "The Gift" and the guitar shards of "I Heard Her Call My Name." "Sister Ray" closed out the album, 17 minutes plus of squalling feedback drenched madness that pushed the Stooges, punk rock, and Yo La Tengo out of its womb before expiring in a pool of blood. Or something that sounds like that. Here's "White Light / White Heat "

1 comment:

Mike Lorah said...

co-signed for White Light/White Heat and Freewheelin' Dylan. GREAT ALBUMS!

Other noteworthies (to me, anyway)--
Nirvana: Nevermind. Most obvious one to me, or does it not count since Bleach didn't break them to the public at large?

Black Crowes: Southern Harmony and Musical Companion - still their best album.

Neil Young: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, which frankly blows away Neil's self-titled solo debut, and which in turn is topped yet again by solo album #3, After The Gold Rush.

Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold as Love; Norah Jones: Feels Like Home; CSNY: Deja Vu; Foo Fighters: Colour and the Shape

I didn't care much for Pinkerton, I must admit. It might be a better record, but to me, it reduced Weezer to a formula and I've never been able to get an ear for their stuff since.