The sophomore effort. It's a crossroad in the lifespan of nearly every band and – let's be honest – not always the kindest fork in the road. The sophomore effort is what separates artists from one-hit wonders, careers from brief flirtations with the music industry, and often times, men from boys. For SoCal introspective rock quintet Something Corporate, it just so happens to be all three.
But the similarities between Something Corporate and the sophomore successes of their peers end there. It's said that you have a lifetime to write your first record and a mere six months to scribble out your second – usually on the road. As a result, many sophomore efforts involve a bevy of songs complaining about becoming the very thing the artist always wanted to be: A rock star on the road, missing home, their girlfriends, their favorite Laz-Z-Boy chairs. Boring.
On North, the band's follow-up to their 2002 Drive-Thru/MCA Records debut, Leaving Through the Window – a 250,000 seller based largely on relentless touring and word of mouth – Something Corporate bucks that idea in favor of a more cerebral concept: Simply being away.
"It has a lot to do with the effect of being away from people and situations in life that you've never been away from and how being that far away can make you isolate yourself further," explains singer/songwriter Andrew McMahon. "As a result, it's a much more serious and moodier record."
Where Leaving Through the Window could be considered the band's summer album, recorded amongst friends in Santa Monica, Calif., peppered with boy-wants-girl/boy-gets-girl/boy-loses-girl tales of carefree adolescence, North is it's polar opposite. The band immersed themselves in Seattle's Robert Lang Studios over a two-month period in May and June, away from hometown distractions, away from the fun and sun of Southern California, away from everything, essentially. "I think I left the studio three or four times and it was to go to the bank to make sure I had enough money to eat that week," says McMahon. "The whole idea was just to completely avoid anything but the record."
The results of self-imposed isolation from everything besides their collective musical vision are stunning. North is a more coherent record than its predecessor is; a more focused affair crafted around emotive, heartfelt lyrics and earnest musicianship that weave a lucid texture through each track. To create the latter, the band pulled the plug on most studio gimmicks.
"Rather than employing cheap production tricks to give the record more body, we wanted to do that only musically -- only though our parts and only though development of the band as opposed to development of production," says McMahon. "Its not that we wanted to make it sound like a White Stripes record or anything like that, but we wanted to make it sound really rich without having to employ techniques like guitar doubling and vocal doubling and all those things that you hear as a typical staple of modern bands."
To create the former, songwriters McMahon and guitarist Josh Partington locked themselves away in a room and made sure they met eye to eye on where the songs that would eventually make up North were headed. "We wanted it to include the different facets of our band but, at the same time, really showcase some sort of growth from the last album," says Partington.
That lyrical growth is immediately evident on North, with such somber tales as "Only Ashes" and "Me and the Moon" clearly coming from a much darker place than high school bullies and punk rock princesses. A dark tale of freedom at the ultimate price, "Me and the Moon" paints a chilling reality right from its opening line; "It's a good year for a murder…"
"It's about this woman who kills her husband after many years of noot being fulfilled in her relationship and not being where she wants to be in life," says McMahon. "She is targeting this man as the reason why she didn’t become the things she thought she would be when she was young."
On "Only Ashes" -- whose tsunami-sized guitar riff is probably the hardest lick the band has recorded to date – a tale of introspection turns to contempt over an expansive rock track. "It's all about frustration and how it seems like sometimes the worse things that can happen to you, you end up doing to yourself," explains Partington. "It's probably the most personal song I have ever written. It's my favorite on this album just because of that. I felt it was the first time I was ever completely honest in what I was trying to say. I didn’t leave out anything."
Partington also penned the album's lead single, the anthem "Space," which features the band's trademark piano feeding off a sprawling guitar riff. "There is nothing more frustrating then having somebody love you more than life itself but can't necessarily even come close to grasping what you are all about at times," says Partington of the song's theme. The track, along with the gorgeous "Break Myself," best sums up the personal demons North is attempting to expel. "To me, 'Break Myself' is all about total desperation," says McMahon. "Just being in that place where you can't do anything to help anyone. What do you do when you're so far away from somebody who needs you and you want to be there but you can’t?”
That's not to say North is a downer – quite the contrary. Something Corporate has simply trimmed the fat this time out and, essentially, matured as songwriters. The result is a work of startling beauty – a portrait of life set to a soundtrack of furiously catchy urban hymns.
"It's not that we didn’t want to have pop sensibilities within it but we just didn’t want North to be this happy pop album,” says Partington. "We just felt that wasn't the direction we were going as songwriters. We felt we needed to write an album that's a little bit more serious. I think the last record was more about us trying to find a voice. Now we found that voice and this is what it sounds like when we use it."