[19 April 2005]
Stereophonics only really came of age when they joined Tom Jones on stage at the 2000 Brit Awards to perform “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)”? Oh yes. It wasn’t quite the Cymru-fest one might have expected. That night Tom Jones became the oldest ever winner of a Brit at 59, but Stereophonics lost out to Travis in the Best British Group and Best British Album categories. Travis? Travesty more like.
Stereophonics may well have been only showcasing the elbow-in-ribs-hey-look-it’s-Tom-Jones-where-are-my-knickers Reload album, but that night they proved they could dish out well-crafted lyrically-driven pop-rock vignettes (viz. “Local Boy in the Photograph”), and shake your pants off with some ironic raw sex. Perhaps they’d matured enough to know how not to take themselves seriously. Except that their 2001 offering, Just Enough Education to Perform went back to the inoffensive aural swaying of croaky ballads. I don’t know. It seems the older I get the louder I want things to be. What was that? Yes, I am enjoying the post-punk rock revival. I can’t speak for my neighbours though (they recently accused me of wearing high heels!? Work that one out).
Then came You Gotta Go There to Come Back . Perhaps in time we’ll come to regard this as a transition record. In retrospect the boys from Cwmaman (and now South America) seemed to be undergoing an apprenticeship on the 2003 release where stuttering blues-rock numbers are punctuated by the more familiar melodic melodramas. These signs of a shift in emphasis are confirmed on Language. Sex. Violence. Other?
To be honest, I was a bit wary at first. The title of the album is lifted from the ratings categories that appear on the back of DVDs. This to me seems akin to juvenile artistry, like insisting that your band’s name doesn’t carry a definite article. It smacks less of inspiration and more of laminating on a half-baked idea. If only it stopped there. Apparently, Kelly Jones, Richard Jones and the new Argentine drummer Javier Weyler, also wanted every song-title to be one word. Ironically, the best tracks are the two that carry subtitles: “Superman (you don’t know what it’s been like)” and “Dakota (you made me feel like the one)”.
Once I’d gotten beyond the irksome teenage throwback stuff, I soon realised that this was the Stereophonics album I was waiting for (sorry lads but correct grammar requires me to use the definite article here). The melodies carry more rock, the lyrics more grit. It’s all just louder and dirtier, with just enough tongue and just enough cheek. At least I hope a song like “Doorman” with all its surface club-rage is meant to undercut itself with the lines “You look like a monkey scowling at me (ooh ooh aah aah) / Well suck my banana suck it with cream.” No, it’s not clever. So what?
I’m not an out and out Stereophonics fan. I’ve read reviews of this album that suggest it will only appeal to Stereophonics fans. I’ve also read reviews by fans who can’t see where this is going and find safe haven in earlier work. The reality is that this is the band’s third consecutive chart-topping album in the UK, and their first release from the album was their first ever number one single. In fact, “Dakota” also topped the UK download chart from January to March. They must be doing something right.
Some will accuse them of jumping on the rock revival bandwagon. The timely release of this, the band’s fifth album, may not be entirely fortuitous, but I believe that they’ve had this album in them for a while. And maybe it took Weyler to come along for the band to infuse their song-writing with the right amount of crude energy required to disintegrate underwear. This may not be ear-tremblingly brilliant but it’s definitely a step in the right direction and a step away from their moping contemporaries Coldplay, Keane, Travis… Sorry, I dropped off there.
The problem with this recording is the lack of variety. By the time the second half of this album is underway, you realise that it’s more of the same. The band wanted this record to have the same feel as a vinyl LP i.e. no skipping and no shuffling. The only thing is, with a vinyl record there’s a break in the middle. You have to get up to flip it over. You have the chance to rinse your ears. Here, a definite rest is required before listening from “Rewind” onwards. One can only hope that this will change as the band mature into their relatively new studio sound.
In time they should also shake off some more recent(-ish) influences. There are hints of Beck’s lo-fi funk in “Superman…” and “Brother”; the motifs of Bowie’s Scary Monsters resonate through songs like “Devil” (it comes as no surprise that they started working on this album whilst supporting Bowie on last year’s US tour). And they’ll learn to use the T-Wah more astutely.
But songs like “Dakota” and “Rewind” prove that they can mix their traditional balladeering with something more modern sounding (I know they’ve only been signed to their label since 1996, but things move quickly in this business). The easy nostalgia of “Dakota” will probably see it become one of the most played tunes of this coming summer, even if the chorus sometimes makes it sound like Kelly Jones is singing “you made me feel like a worm” instead of “like the one”. “Pedalpusher” offers a grinding drive through lyrics that sound pleasingly filthy, but don’t expect to get anything more than a cheap pun out of some close-reading: “You got ya rubber on a pencil / In case you make a mistake.”
Be warned, though. This album will not bear up to being played too often. And it is not an album to fill in your tax returns to.