Follow-ups are a real bitch sometimes. You've got the pressure of the label, who naturally want to repeat the success you had before, especially if it's a really successful album. If your previous record was a critically-acclaimed record that didn't sell a whole lot, there's going to be the pressure of "this record's going to be the one to break out." Of course, the press will be watching to see what you do next, to see if the greatness that was heaped upon you the last time around was justified. Let's not forget the fans, either, who will be eagerly hoping that your record will be mind-blowing..but not too much different, lest you are a sell-out or are trying to be "more commercial." (Of course, considering how "hardcore fans" nowadays seem to have very little moral compunction about stealing the record out of some sense of "I'm their biggest fan and I have a right to steal the new Death Cab for Cutie record," the rules of fandom are a little different now, but that's a different subject.) Of course, this is a common problem, and it goes with the territory.
The Appleseed Cast certainly has this problem. In 2001, this merely-OK band from Nebraska released a stunning, "my god, is this the same band as that boring emo group I saw live?" two-volume album, Low Level Owl. Critics (myself included) were certainly shocked at the transformation from yawn-inducing emo to the epic, art-rock Britpop-but-not-really style that had developed. The praise that the two-volume set (not released simultaneously) received was almost unanimous and was certainly well-deserved, yet it created another little problem: how do you follow it up? It's an extremely difficult yet totally fair question to ask, and when Deep Elm released the smells-like contractual obligation Lost Songs earlier this year, you could sense the anticipation building.
When it comes to records in such an unenviable position, I try to forget about the previous album and focus on the music at hand. Sometimes it's easy to do; sometimes, it's extremely difficult not to do. Sadly, it's impossible to judge Two Conversations without mentioning Low Level Owl. Why? Because the change in the band's sound and style was quite dramatic; no longer could the "emo" tag hold them, and, frankly, they didn't sound like the same band anymore--due, in part, to a major lineup change. That change did them a world of good; gone were the typical emo chords, the posturing, and, franlky, the tedium. When I saw them a few years ago, they were so underwhelmingly average that I really could not remember anything from their set the next day. Low Level Owl changed ALL of that for me.
Personally, I think the reason I'm not really warming up to Two Conversations is due in large part to Lost Songs. That album was their final record on former label Deep Elm, and the album's concept--where they took a several "lost songs" from their previous lineup and reworked them with their current lineup--created a dangerous little precedent. Even though it was all-new material, it was not intended to be a follow-up record, though to not consider it as such would be ludicrous. At the time, I wondered if these recordings were symbolic of the changes that were coming pre-Low Level Owl, or were these songs a sign of what their older material would sound like, given their new style and sonic direction. Yeah, it's a real chicken and egg argument, but it rings true. Two Conversations sounds like the work of the band that released Lost Songs, as opposed to a maturation in their sound. It's understandable why you would fear this suddenly-good band reverting back to its older, less inspired sound, especially when you consider that the songs on Two Conversations don't sound that different from Lost Songs. Instead of artistic growth, I'm simply getting artistic coasting along. Had Lost Songs been released after this album, would I have reacted differently? It's impossible to tell.
It shouldn't be assumed that The Appleseed Cast have all of a sudden become boring again; in fact, there are some great songs on Two Conversations, such as "The Page," "Ice Heavy Branches" and "Fight Song." All of these songs have just that wonderful mixture of atmosphere, emotion, and passion, but there are moments that just scream..typical emo-rock. I'd hate to see these guys slip back into their old ways, and while there's no firm proof that they are about to do so, Two Conversations dances a little too close to that ledge for my comfort. They've already proven themselves capable of making masterful, wonderful music--there's no reason for them to set themselves on creative autopilot just yet. Maybe Two Conversations is a grower, and maybe they're already planning for another big, wonderful artistic statement. I'd hate to see these guys slip off of the mountain so soon after their victorious rise.