For whatever reason, the sophomore record is a musical landmine that many artists face with apprehension. Known as the dreaded “sophomore slump,” it’ll occasionally detonate in the form of a stinker of a Snoop Dogg record, as seen in the case of the unfocused and disappointing “Doggystyle” follow-up “Tha Doggfather,” and just as frequently, it’ll be skirted altogether, as it was with the excellent “Pinkerton,” the follow-up to Weezer’s “Blue Album,” a nerd-rock archetype.
It’s yet to be determined where on the spectrum “Imperium,” the sophomore release of Portland-based band Blouse, which will be opening for Dum Dum Girls on March 23 at Johnny Brenda’s, lies. But it’s approached the landmine with a reckless abandon.
The dream-pop trio’s self-titled debut effort, “Blouse,” was a shimmering dose of indie pop, rife with keyboard parts that fluctuated between glistening and ominous. But with its follow-up “Imperium,” the fluttering synth lines that were so prominent on “Blouse” are conspicuously absent.
“Jake [Portrait], the producer, when we sat down to talk about the record – I think part of the motivation was he wanted to start touring with us and he wanted to play guitar,” said Charlie Hilton, the group’s frontwoman, guitarist and songwriter, with a laugh. “So he was like, ‘Let’s just make a guitar record.’”
But on a more serious note, the group came to a decision to test its limitations.
“I think we just felt like we should try something different because we really felt strongly about the first record,” Hilton said. “We really liked it, we were so desperately in love with it and didn’t want to sit down and try to compete with it or follow that same formula.”
Hilton and company said they are incredibly pleased with the finished product of “Imperium.” Utilizing dreary guitars – that at times sound inspired by a The Animals-esque southern morose, and breathy, ethereal vocals – in lieu of keyboards or drum pads, the three-piece crafted a follow-up that stands firmly apart from its predecessor. Certain tracks also utilize auxiliary instrumentation, including the use of a cello on its song “1,000 Years.”
But the reaction among Blouse diehards has been mixed so far.
“I found that the reception in-person, playing shows, seems to be really good,” Hilton said. “[But] some people are more interested in the electronic stuff we did on our first record, which we completely anticipated. I don’t blame them at all. So it’s interesting seeing that play out.”
Strangely enough, this scenario seems to play out with frequency at Blouse shows.
“Especially at the merch table,” Hilton said. “People will come up and will be like, ‘I want that one,’ and point at [the first] record, which is almost like they’re giving a compliment, like, ‘I don’t like the second one as much,’ but it’s sweet. I actually didn’t realize how dedicated people were to the first record. But with that said, I think that the record we made, I’m still super in love with it regardless of how it’s being received.”
Hilton, on both “Blouse” and “Imperium,” sings with a cold, icy aloofness. Layered on top of the jangly guitars and somewhat lethargic tempos, her vocals can feel distant, although they fit the music to a key. However, Hilton said that despite the delivery, the lyrics she writes are tremendously personal.
“I can’t really write a song unless it’s something close to me,” Hilton said. “I don’t specifically write about things I’m not personally experiencing. They’re pretty specific to my thoughts and experiences.”
Along with future tour-mates Dum Dum Girls, Yuck and a litany of others, Blouse is a member of a burgeoning class of contemporary dream-pop bands. And although the genre peaked in the mid-‘90s, it appears to be seeing somewhat of a renaissance.
“It’s not precise,” Hilton said, of the genre. “And something about that is nice. It’s just something that’s kind of loose with a lot of energy. That’s a nice contrast too, and kind of reflects what modern life is.”
In Latin, “imperium” is a phrase that roughly translates to “power to command.” The brute title is a strange contrast to the femme-fronted tunes that Blouse is famous for. But for an album that’s artwork depicts a Roman statue with a severed head, it saw the band flip its script 180 degrees and the contrast seems strangely fitting.
“It’s nice that ‘Imperium’ is kind of destroyed – we didn’t want people to think that ‘Imperium’ as a title as a motif of the record, as this all-conquering, harsh thing,” Hilton said. “We weren’t trying to draw a parallel between us and that word. It was more of just an analysis of this thing, of power and deconstructing it and kind of making fun of it. It just seemed like a really beautiful thing. And then my friend, who is a professor, told me that it was a metaphor for pure thought, which I really liked. Just the head coming off of the body. Just seeing something like that is kind of beautiful.”
David Zisser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.