Mark Athitakis reviews the album "II" by The Presidents of The United States of America.

Published November 5, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

With second albums, much as with second terms, it's best to keep expectations low. Trying to do things differently, after all, might risk the loss of an adoring public. But adoration  let alone the double platinum mandate that met their 1995 debut album  wasn't what Seattle alt-rockers The Presidents of the United States of America were looking for; they were just three guys writing and playing fun, off-kilter rock songs about whatever came to mind, be it peaches, dune buggies or strange creatures in boggy marshes. They were too whimsical and innocent to stay in one place for too long, right?

As it turns out, whimsy and innocence are hard things to hang on to after three Top 40 singles. Seduced by the rosy glow of life in MTV's Buzz Bin, "II" finds the Presidents starting to take their goofballdom very seriously, and the results are usually stilted and formulaic. Frontman Chris Ballew once again dives into a messy closet of pop-cult clutter, penning ditties about "Puffy Little Shoes," Matchbox cars ("Mach 5") and those Hawaiian "Brady Bunch" episodes ("Tiki God"). All cute jokes, but ones that might be funnier if they weren't so steeped in musical cliches. They aren't writing songs so much as they're stapling them together: insert glam-metal guitar hook here, add a synth-pop fill there, shout out a Rockin' Catchphrase ("Look out!" "Rock!" "Let's go!" "Whoa!" "Whoo!").

Excepting the over-the-top "Volcano" and the loose-limbed jaunt "Froggie," the Presidents sound like a band that enjoys being stars a lot more than even they had expected  for a band that ironically pokes fun at rock 'n' roll pyrotechnics on "Ladies and Gentlemen," they're offering superficiality by the truckload. Instead of the debut's aloof "We Are Not Going to Make It," they now play "Toob Amplifier," about all the neat gear you get when you sell a million records or two ("I've got a brand new cymbal supplier!"), and "Supermodel," about what it's like to finally meet one in person. So much for men of the people.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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