Beating the Sophomore Slump
Three Bands, Three Great Second Records

I swear, if I’m ever in a major label band, I will lobby to call our second album Sophomore Slump. You know, just to save the critics time.

Following up an artistically and commercially successful debut must be nerve-wracking. If you deliver the same album again, you’ll get slammed for it, and it won’t sell as well as the first one. If you deliver something that veers too far off course, you’ll get slammed for it, and it won’t sell as well as the first one. Your record company is breathing down your neck, the guys in the suits are expecting you to shift the same numbers again (even though it’s statistically improbable that you’ll do so), and you’re so sick of playing the songs on your beloved debut already that the idea of doing something that sounds the same just makes you ill.

As much as I like following bands with extensive catalogs, the early records are the ones that truly set the tone, and watching those come out one by one is exhilarating. A good debut album is actually pretty easy – you have your whole life to write that one. It’s the second album, the one made under pressure, that shows what you’re made of. Do you have the wherewithal to put your head down, concentrate and make the best album you can, regardless of the pressure you’re under? Or do you crack, try too hard and make something no one can be proud of?

In short, do you succumb to the sophomore slump or not?

The intense pressure that comes with crafting your first follow-up is exactly why I was so excited to hear Join With Us, the second album by the Feeling. It’s practically a textbook on how to avoid the sophomore slump – it’s bigger and more refined that the first album, but it retains the goofy-pop sensibility that made them famous (in Britain anyway), while simultaneously setting off on several new paths. Keane did the same thing with their fantastic second record, Under the Iron Sea.

But more often than not, that second album is a stumbling block – especially if the first one was an original, fresh sound. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad I’m not any of the guys in Vampire Weekend right now.

But take heart, A-Punks, because the sophomore slump can absolutely be overcome. I’ve got three examples right here of follow-ups that dance the watusi all over their predecessors, and they’ve all come out in the last couple of weeks. There is hope!

First up is the Raconteurs. I’m not the world’s biggest White Stripes fan – I think the first two albums were appealingly raw and bluesy, and Get Behind Me Satan is still the best (and oddest) thing they’ve done. But otherwise, I can take or leave Jack White and his minimalist scratchings. What attracted me to the first Raconteurs album was White’s main partner in crime, pop songwriter Brendan Benson. I was hoping Broken Boy Soldiers would combine the best aspects of both – pop with a bluesy rock edge.

And it did, but not very well. In fact, Soldiers sounds to me like a recording of White and Benson’s first date, if you know what I mean. They were tentative around each other, they sometimes forgot to collaborate at all, and the resulting music was tepid. The album did very well, on the strength of the lead single “Steady, As She Goes,” which winningly pinched the signature bass line from Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him.” (Honestly, whenever I hear “Steady” on the radio, or in a bar, I’m fooled for a couple of seconds into thinking I’m about to hear the great Joe Jackson song. And I’m invariably disappointed.)

Most of the attention given to Consolers of the Lonely, the Raconteurs’ follow-up, has focused on the release strategy. Rather than announce the album months in advance and give the label time to build up advance hype, the band sprung the record on its audience. They issued a press release one week before the album hit stores, and one could be forgiven for thinking a rush release meant a rushed recording. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In many ways, Consolers of the Lonely is the first real Raconteurs record. Where the first one played like a loose, unkempt side project, this one’s an album, a fully realized effort. Finally, White and Benson have delivered that melding of their sounds that I wanted in the first place. Over 14 diverse tracks, the pair shows off just how much they’ve learned about each other in the ensuing year. They wrote all the songs together (except for a cover of “Rich Boy Blues”), and while some lean more in one direction or the other, the album is a whole new thing for both of them.

The opening title track shifts through three changing tempos, as White’s signature crunchy guitar cranks out a monster riff. White’s the dominant force in the early going – the first single, “Salute Your Solution,” rocks harder than anything on Icky Thump. But Benson makes himself heard on the superb piano gallop “You Don’t Understand Me,” a song that exemplifies this album – it’s fully produced, sharp and bright, as opposed to Soldiers’ murk, and with Benson on piano and White on guitar, it gives off a tight, live band feel.

Where Soldiers hinted at diversity, Consolers delivers it. “Old Enough” is a ‘70s folk-rock stomper, with dirty organ and soaring fiddle to boot. “The Switch and the Spur” is a slower cousin to the White Stripes’ take on “Conquest,” a dramatic Tex-Mex radio play complete with horn section. It was an interesting choice to give Benson the lead vocals on this one, and it shows just how well-meshed the styles are here.

On it goes like that, with nary a bad track to be found. “Top Yourself” is a Zeppelin-esque acoustic romp, “Hold Up” rocks like nobody’s business, and “Many Shades of Black” is a soulful monster, with an awesome horn section. “Pull This Blanket Off” is a down-home piano-blues ballad, and closer “Carolina Drama” ends the album well – it’s another story-song that slips through melodies and genres like water. Along the way, White and Benson include mandolins, fiddles and a spectral female choir.

I can’t fail to mention bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, both from the Greenhornes. Consolers is the album that brings these two fully into the fold – whereas Soldiers sounded like a joint solo record in some places, this one is the work of a completely integrated band. Keeler, in particular, shines here – I know Stripes fans will crucify me for this, but it’s nice to hear Jack White accompanied by a very good drummer for once.

But this barely qualifies as a deftly avoided sophomore slump, since virtually nothing was riding on its release. White is all set with his main band – he’s basically just playing around with the Raconteurs, not setting up his retirement fund, and the other three guys have their own careers going as well. “Steady, As She Goes” was a hit, certainly, but nowhere near a nationwide smash.

Not like, say, “Crazy,” by our second contestant this week, Gnarls Barkley.

Two years ago, I picked up the first Gnarls Barkley album just based on how clever the band’s name was. Sometimes my process is just that silly. I had no idea Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green, two guys I’d barely heard of before, would soon be everywhere. It helped that their debut album, St. Elsewhere, was excellent, a seamless blending of modern beats and rhythms with Green’s timeless, soulful voice. But hell, the album could have been blank except for “Crazy” and they still would have been superstars.

So what to do for the follow-up? A second album of Motown-inspired party tracks would have been fine, of course – the sound is so original and ear-catching that a second helping probably wouldn’t have been stale. But that isn’t what Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo did. The second Gnarls album, The Odd Couple, shares an old-TV-shows title motif with the first, and still pairs Green’s wondrous voice with trippy beats and samples. But the similarities pretty much end there.

Try putting The Odd Couple on at your next party, and watch the room empty out. The album is slow, spacey, melancholy and eerie, with not a single smash pop single to be found. It’s also a richer, deeper and overall better record than the first one. It’s as if Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo knew that they’d never match the success of “Crazy,” no matter what they did, so they chose to explore other avenues. Opener “Charity Case” is danceable, and first single “Run” is something of a whirlwind, but it’s songs like “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” with its unearthly, mournful despair, that set the tone.

The Odd Couple is a lot darker than its predecessor. While that album found Cee-Lo poking fun at himself on “The Boogie Monster,” this one is doused in self-loathing. “Would Be Killer” is a frightening glimpse at a damaged psyche, and “Blind Mary” finds Green taking solace in the fact that his visually-impaired girlfriend can’t see how ugly he is. Only closer “A Little Better” shines a ray of hope into the proceedings – most of the rest is creepy, pitch-black and sad.

And it’s great. Those who came aboard with “Crazy” and skipped the back half of St. Elsewhere won’t be happy, of course, and The Odd Couple may get tagged with the sophomore slump label because of that. But artistically, it certainly doesn’t deserve it. Just listen to the extraordinary “Open Book,” a cathartic cry set to music that you just can’t pin down. Or the freaky Syd Barrett overtones of “Whatever,” or the acoustic graveyard whistling of “No Time Soon.” The Odd Couple offers experiences far more soul-searching than those on the debut, and if you’re looking for pop that is also art, you can’t get much better.

But for all their reinvention, Gnarls Barkley have kept the essential core of what they do – they still sound like Al Green produced by Fatboy Slim. Sometimes, though, the sophomore record sees such a drastic, dramatic change at every level from the debut that it’s almost difficult to think of it as a product of the same band. This can be a good or bad thing – if the band pulls it off, it can be the first step in a new direction, but if they don’t, it can come off as desperate. The last thing you want to do, as a new band, is let them see you sweat.

Which brings us to Panic at the Disco, and their second album, Pretty. Odd.

This thing came out just over a week ago, and already, the experience has been fascinating for me. It’s become pretty clear that Panic at the Disco (note the newly absent exclamation mark) is a band I’m not supposed to like. It doesn’t matter that their second album is literally nothing like their first – very few people I know will give it much of a chance. Panic is a band for emo kids and people with no musical taste, I’ve been told, and nothing they will ever do is worth paying attention to.

Now, admittedly, their hugely successful debut is an obstacle to get over. A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out combined all the cliches of modern crap-rock – it sounds just like Fall Out Boy and a dozen other bands. The members of Panic are all cute young men, and they played the kind of music that would get them cute young girls, and slots on major summer festival tours. They copied everything, right down to the too-clever song titles that have little to do with the songs themselves: “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage,” for example.

I doubt anyone expected Panic to do anything but make their first album again (and again and again), which is one reason Pretty. Odd. is so great. I shit you not, this band has transformed from Fall Out Boy to Sloan in the space of one album. All traces of their former emo sound are gone – like, completely gone – and instead, they’ve made a terrific ‘60s pop album. I’m going to say that again, in case you thought you’d read it wrong: Panic at the Disco has made a terrific ‘60s pop album.

Now, here’s the thing. It’s clear that the Panic boys have just traded one stylistic ape for another, probably after watching Across the Universe. But I admit a certain bias here – I like ‘60s pop a lot more than I like ‘00s pop-punk. I actually think it’s harder to write a sterling pop song than people think, and the Beatles already wrote 90 percent of all possible pop songs anyway. So yeah, the band is pinching a style again, but this time, it’s a style I love.

And man, did they write some great pop songs for this one. Pretty. Odd. is Panic’s attempt to make their own Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as evidenced by the first track, “We’re So Starving.” Over a violin-fueled fanfare, singer Brandon Urie promises, “You don’t have to worry ‘cause we’re still the same band,” a nifty inversion of the “we’re a different band” conceit of Sgt. Pepper. The best part is, from that moment on, Panic proves they’re not the same band at all.

You’ve probably heard the piano-pounding “Nine in the Afternoon,” the most radio-ready song on the album. Here are the George Harrison guitars, the ringing bells, the chiming brass lines, the swelling harmonies, all in the service of a serviceable pop song. Still, I was worried – this one sounds tentative, like they were trying to graft their new ‘60s influence to their old emo sound. This type of stylistic transformation can only work if the band jumps in with both feet.

Not to worry. The rest of Pretty. Odd. is the work of a band committed to their newfound melodic love. “She’s a Handsome Woman” is a dirty psychedelic rock song, “Do You Know What I’m Seeing” provides me with my second opportunity to reference Syd Barrett in one week, and “That Green Gentleman” sports the album’s first knockout chorus, an acoustic start-stop wonder that will stick in your head for days. Throughout, you’ll notice a lack of punky guitars, disco beats, or anything recognizably this band – they’ve traded them for strings and horns and harpsichords, and an overall Brian Wilson-esque sound.

Some of these tunes are so insanely beautiful that if they’d come out under another band’s name, they’d be praised to the skies. “Northern Downpour” is a bit treacly, but its chorus is fantastic, and “Pas de Cheval” sounds like something Chris Murphy might come up with for Sloan. “The Piano Knows Something I Don’t Know” is Panic’s attempt at a stitched-together epic, combining two songs into one, and it works brilliantly.

My favorite here is “When the Day Met the Night,” a bright and bouncy Beach Boys anthem. It starts as an acoustic ballad, with subtle strings, but soon explodes like sunlight into a chorus that compels singalongs. I had to jump back and repeat this song my first time through the album, just to be sure I’d heard what I’d heard. By the end, I had to face facts: Panic at the Disco had written one of my favorite songs of the year so far.

The album isn’t perfect. “I Have Friends in Holy Spaces” is a clarinets-and-ukuleles interlude I could do without, and “Folkin’ Around,” nice as it is, doesn’t really belong here – it’s a country-folk piece, less than two minutes long, that sticks out like a sore thumb. Brandon Urie also still has that emo-boy quality to his voice that sometimes breaks the spell of the songs. And the stretch of opulent ballads near the end gets somewhat wearying.

Overall, though, Pretty. Odd. is the best kind of surprise – a complete re-think that actually works. I bet the executives at Atlantic shat themselves the first time they heard it, and I expect the sunny pop that bleeds out of every corner here is pissing off the band’s old fans something fierce. They’ve made an album that disregards those fans, and aims for more sophisticated listeners, who probably won’t give this a shot because of the band’s name. I know, because I’ve tried to get some of those people to listen to this with an open mind, and it’s no use.

But hell, I don’t care. Every time I listen to this album, I like it more, and I hope Panic continues in this vein. I put Pretty. Odd. into my first-quarter report last week at number seven, after only hearing it a couple of times. The more I spin it, though, the more I think I should have rated it higher. Sales might take a hit, but that’s the only part of this stunning sophomore record that will fall prey to the dreaded slump. The album itself is wonderful.

Next week, maybe the Black Keys, maybe Moby, maybe Sun Kil Moon, and maybe some damn Doctor Who already.

See you in line Tuesday morning.