We talk plenty about fear of the sophomore slump often, but sometimes it's that third album that's the most tricky. Especially if you made a solid debut and then blew it out of the water with a much more self-assured and complex second record. Which is, as you may remember, what happened with White Rabbits when 2009's It's Frightening hit. The Britt Daniel-produced record broke the pop traditionalism of its predecessor out into stranger territory, with troubling atmosphere hiding behind every sweet lick, and those snapping, powerful drums right up front in the mix.
The album announced the band as a force to be reckoned with, one with a distinct sound that wasn't going away any time soon. The new record, Milk Famous, smartly avoids trying to retread that fertile ground. It takes lessons learned in texture and atmosphere on that last record and turns them towards a more expansive, gauzy sound that may not hit as immediately as, say, "Percussion Gun" did on It's Frightening, but the albums muted immediacy still leads to a set of songs with a lasting resonance.
You can't talk about White Rabbits without talking about drums -- Jamie Levinson is one of the great drummers working in pop music today -- and the risk they take right up front on Milk Famous is obscuring those drums down in the mix. There are some rockers here like "I'm Not Me" and "Danny Come Inside" that turn Levinson loose, but other songs use his intricacy and vibrance in more subtle ways. Opener "Heavy Metal" deals more in an interplay of jagged guitars and spacey keys, building a negative space that sometimes fills and squalls with frustration but mostly creates an echoing chasm around Stephen Patterson's rise-and-fall vocals. Lead single "Temporary" speeds these electro-pop elements up, and beefs up the bass, to give the space a more driving feel, but even if the drums pick up the pace, it's more about these blippy layers.
If It's Frightening tempered the band's edged power-pop with dark texture, then Milk Famous is more about melding two genres into one. The textures that were once atmospheric -- dissonant guitar sounds, oddball keys -- have now become fundamental, so that the entire record strikes a careful balance between the dreamy tones of electro-pop and the blood-and-bone power of rock music. Most of the time, the band shows a remarkable ear for this balance. "Everyone Can't Be Confused" is a bright, punchy pop song, with the band's requisite low-end piano riffs, but there are grinding atmospherics that brilliantly scuff the song's sheen in all the right places. The thumping closer "I Had It Coming" clangs and clatters over its basic acoustic-guitar bass, and the barely-there reverb on Patterson's voice accentuates the isolation and worry floating all over the track.
When the band nails atmosphere and hook simultaneously, which they do more often than not on Milk Famous, this album builds on the strengths of the last album to mark a surprising and rewarding departure. There are moments, however, where the mix falls off. "Back for More," for example, leans too heavily on all that atmosphere and feels light. There's also times where the dissonance that serves the record so well gets overdone. The busted confusion at the end of the title track feels like a nod to the studio experiments Britt Daniel introduced them to on the last record, but it lacks Daniel's controlled hand.
Milk Famous, though, is still a hell of a success. If there's a third album trap where you rehash second-album success (or where you regress from that into something safer) White Rabbits not only avoids it, but manages to once again squeeze some new elements out of the band's sound. Where their first album found the group sounding like a (or any) rock band, and the second saw it starting to make its own mark, Milk Famous is a full-on declaration, a confident pop record that shows us this band as a collection of unique performers. And the best part is this: Now that we know who the band is, we still don't know what we're going to get from White Rabbits next.