Avoiding the sophomore slump

It’s the end of 2004. You’re at a party, bumpin’ to “Drop it Like it’s Hot,” clicking your tongue to the beat, when a friend tells you about the absolute best concert he went to the other night: a new Canadian band with strings and horns and crazy dudes railing on each other with drumsticks. He burns you their album, Funeral, you give it a listen, and — move over Franz Ferdinand! — Arcade Fire is your new favorite band forever and always. Fast-forward some months later when your friend tells you of a new underground sensation. Eager to be on the ball with this new wonderful indie genre you’ve found, you beg him to get you a copy. And now, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, with its charmingly cracked voices and catchy melodies, scoots on up to your podium of rock.

Now it’s early 2007 and you read that both of your beloved bands are releasing follow-up albums this year. Unable to contain your excitement, you jump up and scream, “Finally!” But in the middle of your celebratory dance, a despicable idea enters your mind: With such monumental debuts to live up to, what if the new releases fail to meet your high expectations? No way! Perish the thought… or maybe not.

It is a sad fact that many bands suffer a sophomore slump after a highly acclaimed first album. Pressure from fans to produce another terrific album can easily lead to a band’s collapse. A band may stick to the formula that led it to success and end with a pale imitation of its past. Conversely, a band could choose to head toward a different style in order to find new exciting sounds, which could turn sour when fans no longer relate to the music. Of course, the best solution to all this is to keep on truckin’ with their good vibes and blow off everyone’s faces again with an even more exciting, surprising, and solid album than its predecessor. Simple, right?

Considering the widespread praise of Arcade Fire, it may be rather difficult to top the group’s groundbreaking opus that is Funeral. From the first soft-spoken line of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” to the symphonic climax of “In the Backseat,” the album is a nonstop powerhouse filled with nostalgia, desire, and beauty. The band gained a following quickly due to rave reviews on independent media sites and music blogs, along with kind words from David Bowie and David Byrne. On stage, the band takes its music to grandiose heights, with at least six members per show (often many more) clad in suits, delivering their souls through guitars, organs, accordion, violins, and an array of percussive objects, all the while singing and chanting and yelling their invigorating lyrics.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah also came to fame through word of mouth on the Internet. The band released its self-titled debut independently, charming listeners with a smooth brand of simple, calm rock (save for its circus-inspired opener). The group’s unique style of singing, with a cracked and wavering voice that often reaches the point of whining, over softly driven rhythms and fuzzy synths meshes to produce an undeniably fun and catchy sound. The album has sold about 200,000 copies without formal promotion, and the group has been touring almost nonstop since its release.

Now each of these bands has a chance to solidify its image as one of today’s best acts in music. Their new albums could prove that their debuts weren’t just a fluke that caught the public’s attention at just the right time. If their new albums are as exciting and successful as their firsts, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Arcade Fire may follow in the footsteps of such sustaining artists as Nirvana, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and Led Zeppelin.

There’s nothing like two consecutive hit albums to kick off a successful music career, and few bands demonstrate this better than rock legend Led Zeppelin. The group’s first album, Led Zeppelin, won a large devoted fan base with its innovative blend of blues and folk carried by loud distorted guitars, unrelenting drums, and Robert Plant’s godly pipes.

Less than a year later, the group did the unthinkable and produced a new album that blew even its own debut out of the water. Led Zeppelin II shot to number one on the U.S. and UK charts, and with good reason. Starting with the now-legendary “Whole Lotta Love,” the band developed its sound with soft/hard alternating songs like “Ramble On,” straightforward tracks like “Living Loving Maid,” and solo-packed jams like “Moby Dick.” Led Zeppelin II secured Zeppelin’s status as one of the most influential acts of its era, and paved the way for the group to become and remain one of the most popular and influential rock bands of all time.

It has been about two years since Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah released their debut albums, giving them more time to flesh out ideas for new songs than was the case for Led Zeppelin II. With a longer period between albums, a band has time to rethink its style and musical direction, which could lead to another (differently) innovative album.

When artists drift away from their original styles rather than building on them, they take a huge risk. Sometimes it pays off, as it did with Weezer’s Pinkerton, which first alienated fans with its turn from the catchy melodies and innocent lyrics of its self-titled predecessor. But once listeners dug through its screeching guitars and feedback, they found the album to be a sullen masterpiece. On the other hand, a turn in style could lead the artist right into a brick wall. Mos Def’s dive into the abyss of rap-rock on The New Danger marked the beginning of the end for his music career.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has already released its new album Some Loud Thunder in its entirety for streaming on the group’s MySpace page (it’s since been taken down, save a couple of songs), revealing a new, drearier sound. “Love Song No. 7,” one of the first leaked tracks, displays a dissonant mood and rise in complexity of song structure. This turn is already receiving praise from music blogs, but the question still remains whether it will impress Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s bigger fans.

The members of Arcade Fire seem to have bought into their own hype, as they have surrounded their new album Neon Bible with many quirky previews. The first single, “Intervention,” was first released only through a toll-free phone line, and the track listing was revealed in a melodramatic YouTube clip. What less would you expect from a band whose debut was titled Funeral? “Intervention” shows the band retaining its lush sound and bittersweet themes, but other leaked tracks hint at more experimentation.

Though both albums will probably leak in full before their release, moral listeners can pick up Some Loud Thunder tomorrow and Neon Bible March 5.