Sophomore albums are usually a problem when you don’t have the full backing of a record company and the expectation to sell a butt load of records. For a lot of bands the sophomore slump doesn’t happen, in fact just the opposite occurs. Flush with a little bit more cash from touring and the first record, the production values of the second record go up, the sound becomes a little more fleshed out and they tend to shed their influences and let their own unique sound shine. This is the case for both Mason and the Guster guys. Interestingly, both their second albums took them to the darkest places of their careers. Both lyrically and sonically.
Mason Jennings – Birds Flying Away
At first listen, this album is angrier than his debut album. It’s more reminiscent of the protest music of the late 60s and instead of relying on the roots-rock-folk of his first album, his palette widens to include flourishes of reggae and jazz. And despite being filled with socio-political songs written back in 2001, like “United States Global Empire,” “Dr. King” and “Black Panther” they only seem more relevant now that President Bush has gone and screwed the pooch. With lyrics ranging from “See it now for what it really is, power hungry nothing much to give. Violent all in the name of freedom, freedom is not domination, I believe freedom’s got to come from within, not with a gun. Freedom is the ability to love everyone.” Um… yeah he wrote that even before 9/11 and the Iraq War. And yet despite his anger and disapointment for what his country has become, several of his most beautiful and unique songs, personal songs are scattered throughout the anger. “Ballad for My One True Love,” “Train Leaving Grey” and “The Light” are indications of Mason’s ability to play it quiet and contemplative. His voice sheds many of the Johnny Cash ticks from the first album. Which is to say that as an instrument to convey pain, devestation, anger, admiration and fondness this is the album that is unparallel. If I were to give someone a Mason Jennings album as an introduction then this would be it.
Guster – Goldfly
Coincidentally, this was the first Guster album I was rightfully exposed to. My buddy Steve Vogel, yes my banking friend, who’s musical tastes now run the gamut from hip hop to rap, turned me own to this album. One of his college roommates was a Guster rep from back in the day. So I picked this one up for $10. Right away the differences between this one and Parachute are evident from “Great Escape.”
The opening track busts out of the gate with a pulsing electric guitar riff, about five seconds in another pulsing guitar riff joins in underneath the first. As each one builds off the other the song explodes just ten seconds in when The Thunder God jumps in pounding the bongos it’s high energy all the way. Ryan Miller singing about getting the fuck out of a place. Just being tired of it all and say the hell with college or this job, I’d rather get in my car and get as far away as I can. “Please content me, steal me from this pristine life, everyone feels pain sometimes,” he sings in the second chorus. And this isn’t any doubt that Guster decided to say fuck it all for their second album. What could have been a one-off novelty act, it’s clear midway through the first track on their sophomore release that Guster plans to be in the music game for the long haul.
Consistently throughout this affair, the songs sound darker and the lyrics go to the darkest corners of Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner’s thoughts. On “Demon” Ryan sings about the need to be the demon, one who can’t be hurt but who can in turn deceive other people. The “Airport Song” was the first song for the guys that got any sort of radio traction. It’s probably one of the few songs with a ping pong ball outro. It’s a slow burning song, building steadily for the first minute or so. Adam and Ryan trading off singing duties the entire time. I haven’t a clue what the lyrics are about, but when the bridge comes and the boys sneer, “You’ll be selling books at the airport” it sounds like they have terrible things in store for some unsuspecting girl. And though you may need a breath after the intensity of the track you won’t get one until two songs later on “X-Ray Eyes.” It’s a shimmering pop number, quiet and controlled.
The album ends on a high note of “Bury Me” a perfect companion to opener “Great Escape.” Only this time it’s the quick hitting bongos opening the affair and then duel guitars which join in later. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to bounce at a rock show. Up and down, up and down until you can’t bounce any longer. Thankfully, album closer “Rocketship” is a mellow number, plodding almost with a morose Gardner singing warbly lyrics. It’s the breather the album yearns for and is well rewarding for the listener who makes it all the way through this album. And yet it’s hopeful as well. “I’m off on a rocketship, prepared for something new. I’m off on a rocketship ecstatic for the news. I can’t stand to be one of many, I’m not what they are.” It’s indicative of the vast frontier before Guster after the spendor that Goldfly is.