Soundcheck: Third Time’s the Charm

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Published July 24, 2009

What happens after you kick the sophomore slump? Gold!

Everyone loves to talk about the classic sophomore slump, the second album that typically isn’t as good as the band’s celebrated debut. Second albums are often rushed and hastily written, overwrought and hopelessly belabored, or clearly created under the haze of a perpetual hangover. It’s often not until album number three that a band can finally truly find itself—presuming of course that they stick around long enough to make three albums. Here’s a quick rundown of third albums (current, classic and forthcoming) that say a lot about the bands that made them.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz! (Interscope)When this record came out earlier this year there was lots of screaming and crying about the fact that the YYY’s—at one time Brooklyn’s finest noisemongers—had gone and made a slick and soulless dance record. Where are the guitars, for god’s sake? What happened to all the screaming?  Now that the critical dust has settled, a close examination of this album reveals that, for one thing, there are still plenty of guitars on board and it’s not as if Karen O is suddenly singing from a wheelchair or anything. The album may lack some of the visceral punch of previous efforts, but you can’t fault the band for trying to expand their repertoire a little. If they had made another dirty-sounding guitar record they would likely be called out for repeating themselves, so why not make a kick-ass synth-pop record and get called out for that instead? This record is a smart move, I say.

Foreign Born, Person to Person (Secretly Canadian)I shouted out this album (on this very blog!) a few weeks ago, but as this record has quietly become the soundtrack to my summer, I can’t say enough about it. Over the course of three releases, Foreign Born went from being a bunch of B-team Interpol imitators to finally embracing their California roots.  I know that the dudes in this band struggled for years trying to get a solid label deal and doing lots of thankless touring, so I am giving them my best psychic high five every time I listen to “That Old Sun” while cracking open a frosty can of Bud Light in my back yard.

Cass McCombs, Catacombs (Domino)For someone who makes what is ostensibly pretty straightforward singer/songwriter mellow-jam indie rock, Cass McCombs is a deceptively weird dude. The more you listen to his songs-which seem, at least at first, to be mostly pretty and a little big sad-do you start to realize how quirky and odd they really are. On his third album, McCombs clears away some of the lyrical ambiguity and dissects the more immediate matters of the heart. “You Saved My Life” and “Dreams Come True Girl” (a duet with actress Karen Black!) are lovely meditations on romance that are more straightforward than anything he’s ever recorded before. It only took him three albums to get there.

Low, The Curtain Hits the Cast (Vernon Yard)I never shy away from a chance to write about Low. For well over a decade this little band from Minnesota has been making exceptionally beautiful and vaguely terrifying music pretty much unlike anything anyone else. The band’s recent albums on Sub Pop have explored a bigger, rock-friendly sound, but the band’s early albums are exercises in pristine minimalism.  The band’s third album (from 1996) strikes a perfect balance between sad, slow singalongs (“Over the Ocean” “Stars Gone Out”) and 15-minute-long exercises in droning existentialism (“Do You Know How to Waltz?”). For better or worse, the band would never be this grandly morose ever again.

Radiohead, OK Computer (Capital)What’s left that could possibly be said about OK Computer? Nothing really, except that sometimes it takes a band three albums to figure out that they are actually a bunch of geniuses.