I’ve always had an affinity for debut albums, with the idea that one’s debut album is every good idea an artist has had their entire life up to that point, while their second album is only the best ideas they’ve had since the last one. But there is something to be said from learning from the mistakes of a debut album, maturing a bit, and coming out with a strong sophomore effort. The Charlatans’ Between 10th and 11th is one of my favorite second albums precisely because it builds on Some Friendly’s strengths and avoids its pitfalls.
Overall, this is an album that sounds effortlessly comfortable with itself, like the Charlatans found their wheelhouse and set up camp. I suppose some people would find such complacency boring, longing for bands to challenge themselves and their listeners. But I don’t think there’s any shame in figuring out what you’re good at and delivering that consistently. Why is that a good thing in a pizza place but a bad thing in a band?
Opening with “I Don’t Want to See the Sights,” the Charlatans not only provide a shining example of the music of the early 90s Madchester scene, but also demonstrate that they transcend it. The shuffling dancey beat and psychedelic organ are there, but so is a chugging guitar riff that rocks harder than Madchester is supposed to.
Nearly every song on the album brings a big contrast between verse and chorus. “Subtitle’s” meandering, moody, word-association verses don’t prepare us for its short jarring chorus. “Page One,” “Chewing Gum Weekend,” and “Can’t Even Be Bothered” deliver low-key verses and triumphant, ringing choruses. I haven’t talked much about lyrics because, well, for the most part they’re kind of dumb. “I can see a rainbow coming out of your hole” ain’t exactly Shakespeare. I suppose I treat Charlatans lyrics the way everyone regards Cocteau Twins lyrics – pretty gibberish that doesn’t need to mean anything in particular in order to sound good.
Judging by how many words associated with motion I’ve already used in this review, it’s not surprising that I’ve always associated this album with travel. Maybe that’s because during my freshman year in college, this is the album I listed to on my Walkman while riding the bus to visit my two best friends at another college an hour’s drive away. Or maybe it’s because of the automotive sounds organist Rob Collins cranks out of his keyboard. Between 10th and 11th’s first single “Weirdo” opens with a chunky organ riff that’s always sounded to me like an old car unhappy about being asked to start. The rest of the album mostly moseys along at a mellow, comfortable pace, but “Weirdo” takes on a more frantic, frenetic tempo in a rush to get to where it’s going. Landing near the end of the album, it was a fitting companion to my growing impatience with uncomfortable bus seats and the passing scenery of endless corn and soybean fields, paired with my eagerness to get to friends and parties and boys.
After Between 10th and 11th, the Charlatans delivered four more albums nearly as good without stepping too far away from that wheelhouse. There are other bands that I’ve loved more passionately than the Charlatans, but sooner or later they all jumped the shark and let me down. But the Charlatans win the Amy Riley Lifetime Achievement Award for delivering the most musical happiness with the greatest consistency over the longest period of time.