'Try-hard' songs and albums

I thought of this when the G ‘n’ R song “November Rain” came on the car radio yesterday: how, when they came out with, not a double album, but for some reason two separate simultaneously released albums ‘Use Your Illusion I and II’ (probably because they could charge more for 2 separate CDs than for one double CD), to me many of the songs had a stink of overreach and, well, trying too hard. The radio version of the power ballad November Rain is 4 minutes and change, but the album version clocks in at an almost 9 minute long slog. The word ‘lugubrious’ comes to mind. One of the other singles off the album, Civil Wars, has lyrics that seem to be yelling “listen to how deep we can be!”. “You Could Be Mine” is a tight little rocker, but most of the rest of the two albums seemed like bloated filler to me.

Then, going over a decade further back, maybe the biggest “try-hard” album of all time came out in 1979: ‘The Long Run’ by the Eagles. I was 15 when it hit the record stores and I dutifully bought it, but even as a 15 year old kid the trying came across to me pretty clearly in the music. The story behind that album is pretty well known. They were under enormous pressure to top Hotel California. This paragraph from the Wiki article about the album covers it well:

The album was originally intended to be a double album. The band could not come up with enough songs and the idea was therefore scrapped. The recording was protracted; they started recording in 1978, and the album took 18 months to record in five different studios, with the album finally released in September 1979 According to Don Henley, the band members were “completely burned out” and “physically, emotionally, spiritually and creatively exhausted” from a long tour when they started recording the album, and they had few songs. However, they managed to put together ten songs for the album, with contribution from their friends J. D. Souther and Bob Seger who co-wrote with Frey and Henley on “Heartache Tonight”. (Souther also got songwriting credit on “Teenage Jail” and “The Sad Cafe”.)

Later on in that Wiki article (ouch!):

Reviewing the album retrospectively in AllMusic, critic William Ruhlmann wrote […] the album “reportedly was planned as a double album before being truncated to a single disc. If these were the keepers, what could the rejects have sounded like?”

So, to summarize, for the purposes of this thread I’m defining ‘try-hard’ music as being, at least in your subjective opinion, “over-labored and under-inspired”. Music that demonstrates the musicians’ reach exceeding their grasp. Songs and albums that weren’t necessarily failures sales-wise, but underperformed expectations. Albums that were often the last gasp of an estranged band before breaking up (of course, not every album that fits that last criteria is a try-hard album; I would not consider Abbey Road or Let it Be - whichever you consider the Beatles’ last album - to be ‘try-hard’ albums).

This is tough, because quite honestly the majority of all the albums ever recorded have only one or at most two good songs on them, and the rest qualify as ‘filler’.

Well, ‘filler’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘trying too hard’; more often albums that are mostly filler are because of not trying hard enough. What I’m thinking of is songs and whole albums that, like I described, seem “over-labored but under-inspired”. Or, “over-produced but under-creative”. Subjective, I know.

Interestingly, the demos for a lot of the most overblown songs on Use Your Illusion date back to the early, pre-Appetite, days for the band. SO Axl Rose always had that overwrought sensibility in him (he was always a big Elton John fan, which may explain some of it).

Zappa sometimes released three or four albums in a calendar year, several of them double or triple sets. Even as a big fan I’ll concede that some undercooked dross made it out. Thing-Fish, f’rexample.

And while I like the occasional ELO song, Jeff Lynne’s production technique of burying a production in huge swaths of synthesizer did no favors to several artists he worked with. Tom Petty’s Into The Great Wide Open and Roy Orbinson’s Mystery Girl were both good but would have been much more listenable (and would seem much less dated now) with less gloopy production.

I would suggest Wilco’s “A Ghost Is Born”, the follow-up to the now-legendary “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”. Jay Bennett had been kicked out of the band after YHF, so Jeff Tweedy no longer had someone to collaborate with on the songwriting (or, as a friend of mine suggested, “to keep him grounded”). IIRC this was also about the time Tweedy was recovering from a back injury and painkiller addiction. Many of the guitar solos just sound like Tweedy thrashing away as a sonic metaphor for his pain, and it gets old pretty quick. The low point of the album was a 12 minute track that was largely just electronic droning noises. I know the album won a Grammy or two, but it’s one of my least favorite Wilco albums, exactly because it reeks of trying too hard.

“A Ghost Is Born” is a very good example, but I think the poster child for overreaching albums is the Clash’s “Sandinista”. They had had great artistic and commercial success with “London Calling”, some of the few double albums in history with no fillers at all, and a diversity of styles (punk rock, rockabilly, reggae, ska, even disco) that was unheard of before. So what did they do as a follow up? An even more ambitious project with even greater variability (rap, dub reggae, gospel(!)) as a triple album. It failed, was overproduced, bloated and had too few really good songs. It didn’t help that drummer Topper Headon was stuck in a serious heroin addiction and totally lacked his usual swing which made most songs sound stiff and bland. If they had picked the best ten or twelve songs from it and made it a single album, it could have been a success, but that was not to be.

Too late to edit: sorry, brainfart-typo, that should read “one of the few double albums…”

Did not know that, and would not have guessed Axl Rose to be a big Elton John fan :laughing:

This anecdote puts me in mind of when the Ramones got the Phil Spector ‘wall of sound’ treatment on their album End of the Century. Probably the worst possible combo of band and Spector sound.

This is a great example. I love YHF, but as much as I’ve tried to like it, pretty much all other Wilco kind of rubs me the wrong way, and comes across to me as varying degrees of ‘try-hard’. With the additional exception of the Mermaid Avenue recordings, which I also love…

Heh, I read a critic having said something very similar about the Mermaid Avenue sessions, that Tweedy and Wilco were as good as they were on them because using Woody’s lyrics, and just having to deal with the musical arrangements, kept Tweedy musically grounded and less self-indulgent.

Not as familiar with this one, but from the little I have heard I’d say this is a great example too.

And let’s not forget their collaborator Billy Bragg who also was a crucial factor for the success of the Mermaid Avenue sessions.

Liz Phair has always been an indie rock darling, but she has also always longed for bigger mainstream success. 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg was somewhere caught in between, but 2003’s Liz Phair was a transparently “I desperately want to be a pop star” album. Then she put out Somebody’s Miracle, a horrifically bad, derivative soft-rock album that would embarrass Richard Marx (with apologies to Richard Marx).

Absolutely- Wasn’t forgetting or discounting Bragg’s fantastic contributions, just didn’t mention him because I only brought up Mermaid Avenue in the context of discussing Wilco / Tweedy.

Hard disagree from me…I think that album is magnificent. The 'mones were always a 60s pop band at heart, and Spector’s production on tracks like “Danny Says” and “Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio?” is totally appropriate. But to each their own.

For an album where Spector is absolutely the wrong guy for the job, smothering the songs under the bombast, look no further than Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man album.

Yeah, I also like the album, and there’s no disconnect between a band like the Ramones and a producer like Phil Spector IMHO. Bubble-gummish pop was always a part of the Ramones’ repertoire and appeal.

This is the first that came to mind for me, as well. Probably because it was just mentioned last week in another thread here in Cafe Soceity.

As a Smashing Pumpkins fan, I always felt Machina was trying way too hard to return to their old hard rock sound after Jimmy Chamberlain returned to the band. It sounded very much like “paint-by-numbers” Smashing Pumpkins. I don’t think my opinion is particularly popular, but they just sound like a poor pastiche of themselves. And that’s pretty much when I stopped listening to them. I just stick to the albums through Adore. Mellon Collie is a bit overwrought, but overall I think it works. It sounds interesting and genuine, and I enjoy most of the exapansive, non-radio songs on it. It would probably do better as a single disc, or maybe a disc and a half. But I know that some/many would say it fits the OP.

Red Hot Chili Peppers “Stadium Arcadium”? Or there was that odd collaboration between Lou Reed & Metallica, Lulu, if evereyone hasn’t erased it from their memories. Definitely trying too hard and failing miserably.

Hmmm…that had been my opinion at one time, but not having actually listened to the album in quite a few years, it’s probably high time I should give it another listen.

A better example from Phil Spector is “River Deep, Mountain High”. He totally buried the headline on that one. He got the performance of a lifetime from Tina Turner and gilded it to the hilt with a mass of session musicians who, though impeccably competent, had no skin in the game.

I’m quite sure that was me :wink:.

“Machina” was the album when I stopped listening to the Smashing Pumpkins. “Mellon Collie” is an interesting album, just by its sheer length and ambition it’s on par with “Sandinista” (Sandinista was a triple LP with a playing time around 120 minutes, while “Mellon Collie” was a double CD with a playing time around 140 minutes). It has its dull moments, but some of it belongs to the greatest noise ever produced in rock. And “1979” is the Pumpkins’ best pop song.

I adore Lou Reed and like Metallica (up until the mid-90s or so when they became a total joke). I never dared to listen to this album, and I’m not inclined to change that. It’s sad that this was Lou Reed’s final album.

For the record - with almost 2 billion views and counting, “November Rain” (the 9-minute version) is the most popular pre-YouTube song on YouTube, making it arguably the biggest “oldie” hit ever.

The reason stated at the time was actually the opposite. They felt that giving fans the option of buying them separately was more fan-friendly than a double-priced double album would be. On a personal note, being teenagers (and the target audience) at the time, a friend and I bought one each and made a copy for the other. I’m sure we weren’t the only people who did this.

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis has that reputation - I only ever listened through it once, and never felt the need to do so again, but that was so long ago my memory of it is vague. And I would offer a different Genesis candidate: Foxtrot. Take away Watcher Of The Skies, I would argue, and there’s nothing much left. I’d rate Supper’s Ready as 23 minutes of overblown prog tosh with a snippet of decent tune at the end (but I accept I may be in the minority on this one).