Sophomore Albums

30 June, 2004 at 12:24 pm (music)

Second Albums. Why are they so difficult? What, precisely, is the hurdle that makes so many reviewers refer to an artist’s “sophomore effort” in tones most frequently encountered in an oncology ward? Perhaps we expect one-hit wonders, or perhaps we are sufficiently aware of the tumultuous marketing of music, and therefore know that studios may have already abandoned their recording artists by the time the second release hits shelves. Why continue to support and help an artist mine the depths of creativity when one can move on to the Next Big Thing, the Bigger, Better Deal?

Or perhaps it’s simply novelty. A new record by a new artist is something one has never heard before. The balance of sound and words, or rhythm and melody, the particular tenor of a person’s voice are all new and therefore interesting. If the music hooks one, in a particular aspect or in a combination, then one tends to investigate the entire album closely, obsessing over and absorbing the minutiae. And the unfamiliarity is half the attraction, the novelty is key.

Ambrosia Parsley of Shivaree... yes, that is her real name.So a second album has a difficult hurdle: it must still be novel, but it must also capture the elements that made the first album appealing. So it must be the same only different. And that is a teetering totter that is difficult to straddle.

Now, I rather enjoyed Norah Jones’ first album, COME AWAY WITH ME, despite my childish inability to listen to the radio single without sniggering lasciviously (“That’s alright, dear… it happens to everyone and is nothing to be embarrassed about.”). And I knew that she was going to be in a tough spot with a second album: would she continue to push Blue Note into the mainstream? Would she slip from torch songs into the slimy ooze of light jazz? Would she move the opposite direction and sidestep into a more produced pop sound? How could she maintain her established tone and sound and not be charged with the crime of not having moved, grown, or progressed? Her second album is described as tinged with a Country & Western sound, complete with guest-vocals by Dolly Parton. But, as The Guardian rightfully sums up (after some needless but entertaining vitriol), the album is so ephemeral that one might “have trouble remembering whether you put it on.” I skimmed through the tracks at the preview station at my local record store and found myself unable to be hooked by any of the songs. Nothing grabbed, and so I left empty-handed.

Also on the torch song front, Shivaree‘s first album, I OUGHT TO GIVE YOU A SHOT IN THE HEAD FOR MAKING ME LIVE IN THIS DUMP, was a delight. Raspy and clever and sensual, it created an idealized post-modern nightclub in one’s head. The follow-up album, ROUGH DREAMS was due out in September 2002. Almost two years later, the album remains unreleased domestically, available only as an import. Where is the band? Where is the album? Perhaps this album was too different; with only a pair of songs maintaining the sort of sound that the band had previously established, ROUGH DREAMS might as well be by a different band. Were the album actually to be released, I’m sure the series of minor publicity interviews in the music mags would be full of dialogue about a “bold new direction”. Would it only be the third album before their press releases indicated that were “returning to their roots”, or would they have to wait until the fourth album? I should look more closely at the production credits between the two albums, as perhaps this is like the difficulty The Murmurs had with their second album, PRISTINE SMUT. Yanked quickly after release and remaindered, eight out of eleven songs were re-engineered and re-released as the appropriately-titled BLENDER. Perhaps ROUGH DREAMS will eventually see a domestic light of day with a Paul Oakenfold credit and the title CUTTING-ROOM FLOOR.

Sarah HarmerI had to listen to Sarah Harmer’s second studio release ALL OF OUR NAMES a few times until it started to seep into my head. Still, I knew that it was going to. After the first listen it created a familiar, dissatisfied feeling that was not a disappointment with the content, but a keen awareness of the fact that I hadn’t been able to receive all of the transmissions. That the poetry had passed me, that the songs hadn’t stuck in my head. There was no stand-out single or eminently hummable tune, but there was a sense that the album was large enough and deep enough to warrant further investigation.

But most impressively, the first track on the album, “Pendulums”, sounds exactly like it could have been a b-side or a hidden track from YOU WERE HERE. The tone and the energy are totally compatible with the previous album, providing a bridge between what has been and what is about to be. The album then moves on to a consistent sound that more active, more band-inclusive than the previous work, but without sounding like the songs could no longer be performed by a Woman and Her Guitar. Ultimately a little short, and shrinking to a quiet close over the last three cuts, ALL OUR NAMES is almost a pitch-perfect example of how to dodge the second-album blues. It feels like another chapter in a body of work, instead of sounding like a publicity stunt or a press-release or a critical re-evaluation of image. It continues to be songwriting and songs themselves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: