Sound Check: Sophomore Slumps

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You’ve spent years honing your songs on the booze-stained stages of derelict clubs. Your debut album earns critical praise and popular support, elevating your group to buzz-bin status. So what to do for an encore? If you’re the six bands here, you give critics the ammunition they need to forecast your follow-up as a sophomore slump. These records are the most unfortunate examples of the dreaded second-album syndrome.

THE CLASH Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic)
Any band brave enough to face down a debut routinely cited as one of punk’s all-time greats already has a challenge on its hands. Joe Strummer and Co. went several steps beyond this by replacing original drummer Tory Crimes with heroin-addict-in-training Topper Headon and teaming up with Sandy Pearlman, an American producer best known for his work with Blue Öyster Cult. Surprisingly, what makes 1978’s Give ’Em Enough Rope such a disappointment isn’t the ballooning of the band’s sound. Sure, the serrated edges have been sanded off the guitars, but it’s the lamely average songwriting that sinks this ship. “English Civil War” borrows the tune from “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” to no particular benefit, while “Guns On The Roof” attempts to recast a ridiculous pigeon-shooting incident (for which Headon and bassist Paul Simonon were ultimately fined) as a grand anti-violence statement. Not to mention the entire second side of the album sounds like it’s running on fumes. Second Chance: If there’s anything redeeming on this otherwise unfocused mess, it’s “Stay Free,” guitarist Mick Jones’ ode to boyhood friend Robin Crocker, who punched out Pearlman for entering the Clash’s dressing room before a ’78 gig.

PRETENDERS Pretenders II (Sire)
The Pretenders’ self-titled debut had it all: sleek, sexy songs delivered with a cooler-than-thou swagger by American expat Chrissie Hynde and played by three British boys who clearly knew their way around a pop tune. Their 1981 follow-up had everything the debut did except for the songs, the ideas and, a year and a half after its creation, two of the members most responsible for its sound. (Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of a speedball overdose in 1982, and bassist Pete Farndon OD’ed on heroin a year later.) “Bad Boys Get Spanked” is a dunderheaded attempt to rewrite the debut’s superior “Tattooed Love Boys,” “Day After Day” is essentially “Up The Neck, Pt. II,” and the heavy-handed “The Adultress” leaves little to the imagination. II’s best songs, “Message Of Love” and “Talk Of The Town,” were both recycled from an EP released five months earlier. Second Chance: No matter what else is said about the Pretenders’ sophomore disc, the crystalline, lushly voiced “Talk Of The Town” makes listening to it a less painful affair.

THE SMITHS Meat Is Murder (Sire)
Morrissey expanded on the exquisite alienation he documented on the Smiths’ eponymous debut by ditching the self-lacerating humor and replacing it with strident politics and a single-minded insistence on taking his former schoolyard bullies to task. His unlikely partnership with whiz-kid guitarist Johnny Marr remains one of the decade’s most special pairings. 1985’s Meat Is Murder found the band dipping into rockabilly (“Rusholme Ruffians”) and faux-funk (“Barbarism Begins At Home”), but the mostly mid-tempo songs don’t take many chances and tend to drag on, some into six-minute territory. There’s no excuse for a tune as dreary and dreadful as the title track, a declaration of war on the carnivores complete with sampled cow sounds and the silliest lyrics Morrissey would ever write. Second Chance: Although released the previous year as part of U.K. collection Hatful Of Hollow, the shivering tremolo guitar of “How Soon Is Now?” (included on the U.S. version of Meat Is Murder) became the Smiths’ defining moment.

THE STONE ROSES Second Coming (Geffen)
Any sophomore release requiring five years to produce and naming itself after the return of the Messiah is either the result of an ocean-sized ego or a smokescreen for an inferior product. In the case of the Stone Roses, 1994’s Second Coming was both. Having weathered a two-year legal war with the Silvertone label and a three-year dry spell marked by getting high, watching soccer matches and listening to Led Zeppelin, the Roses finally gave Geffen what it demanded: a more rock-oriented record that retained their self-titled debut’s acid-house/dance sensibility. Long on grooves but short on hooks and actual songs (“Breaking Into Heaven” is an 11-minute wankfest, while “Love Spreads” sounds like guitarist John Squire taking the Jimmy Page riff-o-matic out for a test drive), Second Coming would ultimately prove to be the group’s last. Second Chance: “Begging You,” with its club-inspired beats and slide-guitar riff, makes a decent case for buying a CD based on a single track.

WEEZER Pinkerton (Geffen)
The sound of male angst—the sort that Clueless’ Cher Horowitz dismissed as “complaint rock”—ruled the school in 1994, the year Weezer’s eponymous debut was sprung upon a flannel-wearing public. Pitched somewhere between the Pixies’ snarling post-punk and Kiss’ mid-’70s cheese metal, Weezer’s hopelessly geeky power-pop/metal blend was the perfect antidote to too-serious alt-rock. Frontman and part-time Harvard student Rivers Cuomo spent the next two years toying with overwrought concepts for the band’s follow-up. Named after one of the characters in Puccini opera Madame Butterfly, 1996’s Pinkerton is seething and self-indulgent. Cuomo seized control of the group and held it hostage to his muse, with songs about all-consuming possessiveness (“No Other One,” “Tired Of Sex”) and corresponding despair (“Butterfly,” “Why Bother?”). Though Pinkerton has undergone something of a critical reassessment, how can anyone champion an album that legitimized the emo-boy drivel later pumped out by the likes of Dashboard Confessional, All-American Rejects and Taking Back Sunday? Overrated and undercooked, Pinkerton sounds like the smell stink makes. Second Chance: Cynical, clever and catchy (with a Pavement-like Public Enemy junk-culture quote), “El Scorcho” is perhaps the only song equal to the off-the-cuff craftsmanship of Weezer’s debut.

THE STROKES Room On Fire (RCA)
“Oh dear, is it really all true?/Did they offend us and they want it to sound new?” This pitch-perfect couplet embedded in the Strokes’ 2003 follow-up to Is This It signifies the degree to which frontman Julian Casablancas understood the hype factor surrounding his “rock-saving” quintet. But songwriting, an activity that requires actual effort, was never Casablancas’ strong suit. Bringing in producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Paul McCartney) only muddled things, and while the boys eventually returned to Is This It producer Gordon Raphael, Room On Fire finds Casablancas’ vocals placed way too high in the mix and barking out material that merely extends the same sleazy themes heard on the first record: getting your drink on, carousing with dirty girls in the men’s room and running from any relationship that interferes with the pursuit of the previous two items. For such an exciting band riding the almighty wave of Strokesmania, Room On Fire showcases a band sounding listless and bored. Second Chance: Despite its slight lyrical content, the brisk, Cars-like pacing of “12:51” has just enough of the grime and grit of Is This It to make it a salvageable listen.

—Corey duBrowa

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3 Comments

  1. Lee
    Posted March 12, 2009 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Out of all the sophmore slump nominees out there, you happened to pick two albums that contain some of the best career material of two of these bands, The Clash and Weezer. You are two albums too pretentious in writing off The Clash right around the peak of Strummer’s musical career. I have never heard anyone denounce those guys before Sandinista! so I will assume that you’re a disciple of the school of Les Bangs by looking for holes in completely awesome albums as an attention seeking imitator of the few music reviewers who actually have good judgment.

  2. Posted June 15, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    I dunno, Pinkerton is one of my favorite Weezer albums. Room On Fire has some good jams. But, has everyone failed to remember ADVENTURE, by Television? I think the sophmore slump has to do with how incredible the first album was, which is where Adventure comes in as probably the most depressing of all sophmore slumps. Long live Marquee Moon!

  3. Matt Bokovoy
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Meat is Murder is one of the great Smith’s albums, and it’s appearance here is dubious at best. But Magnet Magazine is a front for the corporate “indy” subsidiaries anyway, and their staff with minimal indy music memory.

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