Friday, June 11, 2010

The Sophomore Slump

    I’ve met a few people lately who aren’t overly pleased with the new MGMT album. And mostly the reason for their distaste is because: “It’s too different from the last album.”
    Okay… Fine.
    Personally, I love “Congratulations.” The whole album sounds like a crazy psychadelic mash-up of 60’s pop and 70’s art-rock.  “Flash Delirium”, for instance, sounds like E.L.O. doing a Roxy Music song, and the title track sounds blatantly reminiscent of the Sleepy Jackson’s first album.
    However, I should offer the disclaimer that I didn’t like much of anything I’d heard off of “Oracular Spectacular.”  Don’t get me wrong, the music wasn’t bad, but it seemed to have this sorta indie-synth-pop feel to it that didn’t really win me over…. (and I’m sure most people disagree with me - so hold your comments till the end, please….)
    Now, I’m not going to try and convince all you nay-sayers that “Congratulations” is a better album than “Oracular Spectacular” - (although, I believe it is…) - What I really want to talk about is the Sophomore Slump.
    Generally, this term is associated with a second album that doesn’t live up to the promise of the first one, (much like the whole “One-Hit-Wonder” phenomenon). There’s lots of examples of this, so there’s not really any need to list them.
    Now, the complaint that most people have is that the follow-up album is too different from the last album, (otherwise implying), it’s not as good as the last album.
    I guess the problem I have with this “different = not as good” argument is that it sounds like a weak reason for disliking an album at the first couple of listens.
    For my side of this argument, allow me to present to you this question:
    Do we really want a band to make the same exact album as the last one?
    Personally? I don’t.
    Now, (on that note), would I love to hear Radiohead make another “The Bends” or hear Wilco do another “Summerteeth”, or even have Pulp make another “This Is Hardcore”?  Hell, yeah! I love those albums.
    But, let’s  think about it for a second…..  The sound of a band repeating their breakthrough album, is the sound of a band that is bored. And besides, if any of those bands did try to make any of those albums again, they wouldn’t sound the same and, (in all honesty), would probably lose the specialness I’ve associated with them.
    What happens if a band does make an overly similar-sounding album to their breakthrough album, (presumably in the interest of sales)?
    I draw your attention to:
Exhibit A:   Sugar Ray
Exhibit B:   Smash Mouth
    Both of these bands had their breakthrough albums in 1997, and then had sophomore albums that did as well, (if not better), than their debuts. Why? Because they’re basically the SAME DAMN ALBUM!
    Now you might be continuing your cash flow by making the same kind of music that the mass populace wants you to make, but sooner or later the fickle mass populace is going to move on to the next big thing. And really, who takes either of the afore-mentioned bands seriously anymore? 
    What we should really want is for our bands to actually let their sound grow - to not always have that next album full of singles, so that the band can remain still relevant in the next 5 years…
    Most times, a major change in sound doesn’t equal out to good record sales. However, the history of rock music does show something interesting. I’ll give you two examples:
    Exhibit C:  Lou Reed’s  “Berlin” from 1973
    Exhibit D:  The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” from 1969
    Both of these albums were commercial failures at the time of their release. Lou Reed was expected to do another “Walk On The Wild Side”, while the Byrds’ weren’t expected to take a left-turn into country music. Most of the buying public didn’t get it.
    However, in the years since, both of these albums have become classics in their own right. “Berlin” has received tons of critical praise and is considered one of Reed’s best works, while “Sweetheart…” has been touted as the genre-defining  album that started the present alt-country music scene.
    So, while the new MGMT album may not be anything as dramatic as a genre-defining masterpiece, what I would venture to say is that it’s the sound of a band reaching further out of their comfort zones and trying new things, (even if the cost is low album sales).
    And if “Congratulations” is a commercial failure, I would have to say that I’m enjoying it more than I would have an exact replica of “Oracular Spectacular”, because even the sound of failure can sound pretty damn cool.

Song Of The Week:

    Yes, you can pronounce it "chk-chk-chk" in order to put the band name into words. First of all, these guys are a great-sounding band. And this particular cover of a Magnetic Fields song is just amazing. The original is cool, too... But as far as covers go, !!! really gave it a sweet rave treatment here.