The classic career trajectory for any long-term musical artist is as follows: artist spends entire life writing first album. Album is raw, snarky, full of poetry. Brash. Artist strikes a chord in the cultural zeitgeist. Artist is suddenly a household name. Pressure is on. Artist has six months to write follow-up album. Follow-up album either tanks, or The Artist grows under pressure and their sound grows/improves over the course of a few albums. The Artist enjoys a few years or a decade of glowing success, anywhere between three and six albums wherein the new music is informed by the old music, but builds upon it. Then, Parenthood, or Divorce, or Creative Differences enter the scene, and The Artist’s mission statement is warped. That old, raw snark is gone, replaced by pressure from The Label to keep churning out The Hits, to keep The Cash rolling in.
The Artist may start to experiment with different sounds, dig into deep emotional themes, or write the dreaded concept album. The Artist spends a lot of years out in the woods, doing weird shit, pretending every new album is the best one. The Fans wonder more and more with each new album why they keep tuning in. The Fans continue to go to The Show, hoping for some of that old ragged glory. In a few cases, The Artist has a late-career resurgence, reflecting on the autumn years, and makes some of their best music at the end.
Occasionally, though, The Artist makes one perfect statement and disappears. Their debut so succinct, so fully-formed, any thought of a follow-up would be redundant, at best. The recent dissolution of G.L.O.S.S.-the queer hardcore outfit whose discography spans two 7” records and is over and done in fifteen minutes-has the author thinking about how, sometimes, it’s best when The Artist bows out quickly and gracefully. Here are four artists who made one perfect record, then called it quits.
1. Lincoln, S/T
The lone batch of songs from Chris Temple that ever saw wide release, Lincoln’s 1997 debut was twelve pop rock songs that touched on themes of loneliness (“Wish You Were Dead”), sobriety (“Straight”) and rural despair (“Carversville”), all through a filter of childlike wonder. Temple’s voice recalls Michael Stipe, if R.E.M. had come of age in the north Midwest. In a just world, “Unhappy” would sit firmly between Weezer’s “Butterfly” and Elliott Smith’s “Waltz #2 (XO)” on every mixtape ever made for a best friend or unrequited lover. In a just world, one of the American Pie films would have opened with the girls, driving up 131 into Grand Rapids, top down, blasting “Sucker.” In a just world, the parabolic “Smashing” would be on every critic’s list of Ten Best Album Closers. But, this is not a perfect world. After tours opening for They Might Be Giants and Marcy Playground, guitarist Dan Miller and bassist Danny Weinkauf defected to join TMBG (which they do, to this day), and Chris Temple has never issued a follow-up.
2. Operation Ivy, Energy
Every suburban punk heard the first Rancid singles in 1994 and went nuts. Every punk ran out and bought Let’s Go and …And Out Come The Wolves. Rancid were the germinating seed for a (later) generation of punk rockers that discovered punk through MTV. It’s okay. They’re both very good records. Any young punk worth his salt in the 90s, though, looked back and discovered Operation Ivy, the band Rancid singer Tim Armstrong and bassist Matt Freeman started out in. Far more ska-leaning than any Rancid record, Op Ivy’s Energy was a re-packaged 27 song blast of high-energy punk rock. From opener “Knowledge,” which is still covered in concert by Green Day, today, singer Jesse Michaels was highly political and highly passionate. Guitarist Armstrong served more of a Flavor Flav role in Op Ivy, sticking his neck out for choice bridges on “Sound System” and “Unity.” Broken up for good before the dawn of the 90s, Operation Ivy are remembered as fondly today for what they did for their community (and the national punk community at large) as they are for the record. Their first show was at 924 Gilman, a DIY punk space in Berkeley, CA that has remained open and independent since the 80s. True to their punk roots, at least til now, Operation Ivy have never reunited. There has never been an embarrassing second album. Just that one glorious blast of punk ska.
3. Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth
The casual listener might never realize that Stuart Moxham was the brains and principal songwriter behind Young Marble Giants. Alison Statton was the singer, and the guitar is often buried in the mix, deep beneath brother Philip Moxham’s pulsing bass and the cheap, tinny rhythm tracks the band played over. One of the brightest and most innovative bands of the late-70s UK post-punk scene, YMG’s lone album is harrowing, ominous, more “post” than “punk.” Opener “Searching For Mister Right” begins with a simple rhythm that sounds like an automated heartbeat; like Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” for the burnout kids of the future. Statton’s voice is thin as a reed, Stuart’s guitar often so skeletal that it could easily be mistaken for part of the rhythm track. The bass guitar is the closest the band brushes to conventional rock n’ roll sounds; Philip often sounds like Bootsy Collins playing to a metronome. Still, “Include Me Out,” “Constantly Changing” and “Credit in the Straight World” align in subject to the angst that every UK punker must have been reeling with: on the dole and with no release save for creating a new kind of strange noise. Though YMG issued a couple singles aside from Colossal Youth (you owe it to yourself to hear “Final Day” before you die), the band broke up not long after Alison and Philip Moxham did. They’ve reunited for concerts a few times, but have never tried to top their masterwork. Colossal Youth, not REGARDLESS of its’ strange sound, but BECAUSE of it, remains a testament to the original punk spirit of freedom and personal expression.
4. The Porno Cassettes, “Your Face, A Fucking Disgrace” 7”
HOT BUTTERED FAT, here’s a band that didn’t fuck around, even for a half hour. The Porno Cassettes did, in one 7” single, what most bands never do. Now, to start, B-side “Dead End Yobs” is good. Fans of early 80s Oi would be pleased. The song has a nice hook, the chants of “Oi! Oi! Oi!” in the back fit nicely. “Dead End Yobs” is just an appetizer. A-side, “Your Face, A Fucking Disgrace” is your new anthem. It’s your new “Street Fighting Man.” On it, the singer castigates a friend who’s been worked over with the ugly stick. There’re three chords, in there, but there’s definitely not a fourth. Porno Cassettes did not fuck around, man. Big, bold fun, for fans of Blatz, and early Rancid. The band weren’t around long enough to cut a second single. Truth is, they didn’t need to. If you ever want your faith in punk rock reaffirmed, look no further.
Honorable Mention: Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Honorable mention because it’s not Jeff Mangum’s first album but, face it: everything else Neutral Milk Hotel recorded was dress rehearsal for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Impossible to top, every note is perfect. Every moment to be cherished. The pressures of touring the record compelled Mangum to disappear from the scene for over a decade. Crazy rumors abounded. The people who loved Aeroplane discovered it after the tour ended, couldn’t bring themselves to believe they’d ever see the songs played live. When Mangum surfaced for a solo tour in 2011, shows sold out immediately. Crazier rumors abounded, rumors of another record, rumors that NMH were back, for good. The author was so disappointed by the Mangum solo show-something about the lack of intimacy, combined with something strange about watching those songs stripped all the way down-he didn’t bother to see the full band reunion. Neutral Milk Hotel disbanded, again, last year. No third record to be found. I’ll bet the songs were there, but I’ll bet they didn’t live up to and beyond Aeroplane. The author applauds NMH’s decision to call it a day, to bow out, un-bowed.