Following up a critically praised near-classic album with another winner is a feat that so few artists accomplish.
JJ72's I to Sky sees frontman Mark Greaney and company nearly matching their debut, pairing their own unique style to a series of musical influences, from Joy Division to the Smiths to Kiwi rock to U2 to the Smashing Pumpkins and obviously Placebo, but sometimes fumbling about in a not-entirely welcome, newfound sonic bombast courtesy of uber-producer Flood and mixer Alan Moulder.
When Greaney hits the nail on the head, he's still capable of musical epiphany.
"Formulae" is a masterstroke equal to the singles extracted from the eponymous debut.
Greaney's opening vocals sit easily alongside processed acoustic guitars as he nonchalantly sings about things going wrong and man-made rules, and then, 40 seconds in, the heavens open and he lets loose his trademark range to tackle a killer chorus.
"I Saw a Prayer" and "Always and Forever" are also worthy of the band's spectacular debut; the former adds a "Pure Morning"-like crunch and punch to the formula, while the latter feels like a second cousin to "Algeria." Greaney sounds old beyond his years on "Always and Forever" -- kind of like a frazzled Morrissey singing romantically over textured bass notes and homegrown beats similar to those from David Gray's White Ladder, while a lush, anthemic U2 sweep breezes past.
"City" blends early New Order iciness with a buried backdrop of fractured, buzzing, dreamy Kiwi guitars.
"Sinking" is the closest approximation to Martin Hannett's production of Joy Division this side of 1980, but the subject matter and melody can't match Ian Curtis and the song falls rather flat accordingly.
But falling flat is something JJ72 rarely does; even the ridiculous lyrics of "Serpent Sky" and the wretched screaming segments of "City" can't hamper the band's charisma and spark.
Ultimately, I to Sky can't decide what it wants to be, and it's this quality that will make or break the album for individual fans.
In a sense, it's much like Pavement's Wowee Zowee, full of splendid tangents that don't always best represent the band's strengths but that give new insight into their influences.
It would be wrong to view the album as an indication of a sophomore slump, because JJ72's debut set the peg so high into the stratosphere.
I to Sky is a rewarding but difficult album that unleashes its charms over time.
There's no denying that atmosphere has taken the lead over songwriting prowess, and one can't help but think that JJ72 somehow got sidetracked on their journey to creating a second instant classic, but like the debut, the album leaves the listener clamoring for more of Greaney's flights of fancy.