This occupies – with the Dream Syndicate’s Medicine Show that same year – a case where a sophomore album is just as good if not better than the debut, but has widely been decreed by some unknown committee at some unknown time that people will know these albums are worse. Debut album bias; it’s first, therefore more influential, therefore it’s better. See also: David Bowie’s ”Heroes” universally recognized as worse than Low for similar reasons.
Not that this band was ever much to begin with in the first place: “Blister in the Sun” remains a really fun time to sing-along to and the climax of “Kiss Off” is one of the best climaxes to shout-along to, but the band’s instrumental ability mostly rested on the shoulders of Brian Ritchie’s melodic bass-lines. Meanwhile, Gordon Gano’s lyrics indicate he’s never set foot outside (which makes him appealing for the never-set-feet-outside crowd), and the band’s acoustic aesthetic is just that – a well-chosen aesthetic; a bedroom corner to run to when MTV took off that same year. And on Hallowed Ground, while they deliver nothing equal to that of “Blister” or “Kiss Off,” they get better, instrumentally speaking, by keeping that same aesthetic that made them relatable in the first place but broadening it by merging it with country. Cowpunk, so it’s called. Of course, the lack of either of those songs and the country sound (not the most appealing of sounds for most people) probably turned most people off.
The highlights, in absolutely zero order: John Zorn’s (yes, that John Zorn) section during the otherwise unbearably stupid “Black Girls”; the really silly chanted rhyme of “I Hear the Rain” (“Gotta kill the pain”) before the band let what sounds like steel drums carry the melody and the acoustic chug carry the rhythm and they turn a silly chant into one that’s considerably less silly; the likeable melody (mostly Ritchie’s counter-melody, and the harmonica texture) of closer “It’s Gonna Rain” ; the bass-line of the title track (there Ritchie goes again, being the MVP) and the twinkling piano keyboard underneath the wordless hook. Elsewhere, both “Country Death Song” and “Jesus Walking on the Water” which would be – even without Ritchie’s bass-lines – likeable gems that wouldn’t have sounded misplaced on Anthology of American Folk Music (the former especially, reminds me of Buell Kazee, if only for the lyrics). Finally, “Never Tell” starts shakily, with the forced rhyme of “Hey, sister, have you heard / Some people stand like trees without a word” but follows it up with one of the bands’ most accomplished compositions, even if the song gets wearying over its 7 minute playtime (and speaking of John Zorn, does anyone get Zorn vibes at the sudden DYNAMIC SHIFT at the 3:42 mark?)
Of course, Gano being a completely unlikeable pre-20 fuck at the time of writing the songs, the album’s not perfect – and I would like to think, even if I had heard it before I was 20, I’d agree with that assessment. The non-John Zorn bits of “Black Girls” seems like the inspirational source of Rivers Cuomo’s “El Scorcho”; Gano sings “It’s Gonna Rain”’s likeable melody with dripping irony such that it almost turns it unlikeable; “Sweet Misery Blues” should die in a freak car accident; “I Know It’s True But I’m Sorry To Say” is a dirge, albeit one with some lovely vibes.
In addition to the category of “sophomores that are better than people think,” this is also relatable to Sonic Youth’s later albums, where they matured both lyrically and, more importantly, sonically – doing more interesting things with their guitars than they ever had as Glenn Branca wannabees. But a lot of Sonic Youth listeners seem to think that they became mediocre after Washing Machine (or maybe Murray Street, for some reason, even though Sonic Nurse was better). Sonic maturity isn’t as appealing as sonic juvenilia, I guess. Childhood is short and maturity is forever.