Review Summary: Easily Hole's most mediocre and desperate-sounding album, Working Overtime is average to the core, with a few fiery spots marred by generally blase songwriting and a weak homogenous atmosphere.
A common music criticism concept discussed is that of the sophomore slump. A new artist will come out with a debut that catches people off-guard and leaves them hungering for more, leading to stressful expectations that more often than not cannot be met. But I would like to propose another idea to welcome to the fold. As someone who likes examining an artist's overall growth and progress over their discography, their third album is where they should be really branching out and stretching their legs as artists. To me, the "three albums" Soundgarden had in the 90s were the perfect progression, going from the most raw album to the poppiest, most polished album, then to the more acoustically-minded album which relied a lot more on developed songwriting. Which may seem like a weird contrast to draw, especially as neither Superunknown nor Down On The Upside had dropped by the time Working Overtime came out, but this perspective bears consideration, as the album significantly falters under this not unrealistic scrutiny.
Hole is always more traditionalist than auteur all his own, but Working Overtime is by far the album that sticks most to tested blues conventions, with more 12 bar songs than even Ticket To Chicago. In some ways, it is his most definitive album, the one whose solos best demonstrate his voice and feel on the six-string, as well as his vocal ability in general, but it is thankfully not entirely indicative of his songwriting ability. The album is, plainly, tedious to get through because it bears very little in the way of surprises and barnstormers. Even as half or so of the songs have good grooves, including opener Nobody Hears Me Crying, it's still not dynamic enough to rescue these tracks from mediocrity.
The overall atmosphere is so reserved that I just feel, too much, like this was an album for Hole himself more than for potential listeners. He'll sit there and play solos and riffs that clearly have a lot of soul and improvisation but not necessarily a lot of bite, which is what tells me this is an indulgent blues trip to a fault; it's just so very hard to see where the actual songwriting came from. One could point out the numerous songs whose lyrical content is about cheating wives and breakups, but that's hardly new to the genre and certainly a subject Hole has not shied away from before and will continue to tap into. But all of these aspects that tap into basic blues songwriting singularly would have been fine. Together, they create some homogenous murk.
Still, some tunes do escape this. The title track comes away as the easy highlight, with a rugged, driving, even angry riff with surprising implementation of a falsetto chorus refrain, elevated by some brilliant ragtime piano work. All of the pieces come together, making the requisite guitar solos come off as a part of the song, rather than the song simply being an excuse or a simple template for the solos. It has a real "jam" quality to it that's a lot of fun. Stormy Seas' janglier take on blues also successfully gives the rhythm section enough meat to carry the song, and Key To The Highway features a rare non-guitar solo that gives the whole performance the breathing room it needs. The album also features one of the better covers out there of Muddy Waters' I Can't Be Satisfied.
But it says something that a Muddy Waters cover of all things is one of the most daring compositions on here, because so much of the rest of the album's atmosphere is beyond reserved. Key To The Highway, Crazy Kind Of Woman, Nobody Hears Me Crying, all crib too much from the Chicago blues playbook, even for Hole. Special mention must go out to Up All Night Thinking, a truly abominable eight minute slog whose spots of shred don't save a song whose tempo could probably be printed out in the single digits.
The problem isn't even just the frameworks therein; even Texas Flood is full of songs that could be argued sound the same. But much of Working Overtime feels the same, which is a big difference. Hole's guitar sound becomes more established and easy to digest, even occasionally more exciting than that of The Plumber, but it also becomes less experimental and more reserved. Seemingly tapped out of songs to be plucked from the touring circuit, so many songs on here feel like basic suites where Hole can improvise some magic later. In general, over the course of his career, this works just fine, but the mojo was apparently not on his side in 1993, because while they may not all sound the same, with a bit more diversity in technique than the pinches and slides that smothered his last album, a lot feel the same or fill the same niche in the concept of their respective songs, with repeated passages that could only be called motifs if you're feeling generous.
Still, the "smooth groove" factor would give this album an audience. Hole's voice, his literal one, still sounds fresh enough by this point to set him apart slightly, and he's still doing a lot of work behind the guitar, but he did basically no work on the songwriting process, and such as it is for the listening experience of Working Overtime. It is inoffensive, but is generally in one ear and out the other. Even with my limited exposure to his later work, I can definitively say this is the album that least rewards an initial listen, much less repeated ones. His potential wasn't snuffed out yet, but artistically, Working Overtime did indeed show signs of burnout and phoning it in.