Saturday, March 3

Smoke or Fire VS The Sophomore Slump

Artist: Smoke or Fire

Album: This Sinking Ship

Comments: I’ve always had a problem with the term “sophomore slump”. How pretentious are we to say that a group is slumping, to write a group off altogether, just because their second album might not have been as good as their first? For average bands, there really is no way to win. If they make the exact same album twice, then they get slammed for being repetitive, uncreative, and are basically reduced to one-trick-pony status in the eyes of critics. However, if a band tries to change their sound up too much on their second record, they get slammed for tweaking with the formula that made them good in the first place (I made this point in my review of Clay Your Hands Say Yeah, but I feel it bears repeating). It’s such a catch-22 that I don’t even like to use the term if I can help it.

I even have a problem with the word “slump”. I’m no word-smith, but my understanding of the term is that it is saved for people who are in a consistent funk after pre-achieved excellence. Well, who the fuck are we to say that a group is slumping after only two records? Give me one great record, then 4 bad ones, and then I’ll say someone is slumping. I think the big problem with sophomore albums is this; you have your whole life to write your first album, and only 18 months to write your second one. If you give an average man a lifetime, he will write something magnificent. If you give an average man 18 months, you’ll get something, well, average. In my eyes, that is exactly what happened to Smoke or Fire.

Smoke or Fire is a good punk band. They aren’t great, and they aren’t awful. They’re good. And in 2005, this good band made a very good record called Above The City. At the time, it was one of the only good titles on the once powerful, now aged Fat Wreck label. Above the City was a refreshing release of early 90s influenced So-Cal punk. It established Smoke or Fire as a band that possessed pop sense with an underlying layer of something more harsh; they had an edge to their quick pop anthems. SoF returns with their second effort, This Sinking Ship, and while it does have a lot in common with its predecessor, it is not as strong of an effort.

Smoke or Fire doesn’t stray too far from their formula on this album, which is fast, so-cal punk. However, where they used to have a gritty, hard, and almost ugly edge, there is now a smooth pop sheen that doesn’t match the sound Sof established on their first release. The songs are a little bit too polished and sound almost neutered under a clean and practiced production. These are not things you want to say about a punk record; punk should be raw and natural, not practiced and clean. The vocals are more finely produced, giving the singer less edge to his voice; his screams are a little bit softer, his harmonies more mainstream. It doesn’t sound as tough it once did. The clean production on the album also forces the songs rest more on the lyrics, which often cannot hold the weight of entire songs. Punk is, at its core, youthful and immature. These things, in the wrong hands, can sound empty and ignorant, as they do at times on this record. However, when those two things are used properly and with the right control from a band, it can sound real good, as it does at on this record.

The first half of the album is more pop gloss than punk grit. Songs like “What Separate us All” and “Irish Handcuffs” bring more bark than bite; it has the same buzz saw guitar and sincere scream/sing vocals, but with that pop tweak that really takes the teeth out of the music. A lot of these songs sound like they could use some editing; they would sound great as minute and a half songs, but they just go on without having anything to say, especially “I’ll Be Gone”. The only real standouts from this first half of the album are the first single ,“The Patty Hearst Syndrome”, which is as good a pop punk song as any released this year, and “This Sinking Ship”, which retains some of the grit and grime of Smoke or Fire’s previous work, while still maintain a newer, cleaner pop focus.

Starting with “Shine”, the album starts to get a little tougher, a little less polished, a little more sloppy, and, in my opinion, a little better. “Shine” starts off with a harsh minute and a half instrumental blast before launching into the actual song. It’s got some weight and some real feeling when they scream “Given the chance, we would shine!”, and it’s almost worth the time it took to get there, but not quite. "Shine" is another example of a song that could use some editing. “Art Imitating Life” is able to blend the pop sensibility with their harder edge in a very appealing way. This song reminds me of old Rise Against and what made them so good. The roughness continues with “Cars” and “Breadwinner”, and these songs make good on some of the promises made on their first record.

This album limps out of the gate and stumbles along before finally falling into place on the last four songs on the record. All in all, like I said in the second paragraph, this is a good record. Smoke or Fire is proof that an average band can make truly above average music, but they are also proof that this is by no means a guarantee. That being said, this is a good record for them, and for all its faults, I hear good things in their sound. It won’t be the success that Above the City was, but This Sinking Ship is by no means a slump.

Rating: 6.5 out 10

Key Tracks: The Patty Hearst Syndrome, This Sinking Ship, Art Imitating Life

Worth The Money: Yes for fans, maybe for average Joes.


Here's the schedule for the next week of reviews

Tuesday - Do Make Say Think

Thursday - Arcade Fire

Saturday - The Stooges or Moe.

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