Music

Stereophonics: Graffiti on the Train

Stereophonics have never been a smiles and sunshine kind of band, but neither has their material been as thoroughly dark as that found on Graffiti on the Train.


Stereophonics

Graffiti on the Train

Label: EMI
US Release date: 2013-03-12
UK Release date: 2013-03-04
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

Stereophonics just do not get the respect, or the credit, they deserve. It seems requisite for any article on them to classify the group as “meat and potatoes", though I for one am baffled by this, as the Welsh band is anything but generic to my American sensibilities. They’re dependable and consistent, but far from predictable cock-rock churning out rock-by-numbers or variations of the same song. Their songs are goddamn catchy, and at times anthemic, but by no means formulaic. While it wouldn’t be accurate to characterize them as an experimental band, it would not be inappropriate to say they do experiment with their sonic palette, pushing their boundaries, incorporating disparate elements without forfeiting their distinctive sound.

The fact that they have survived long enough to have an eighth studio album, Graffiti on the Train, is a testament to the fact that they have consciously avoided the pitfall of stagnancy or playing it safe. Again, maybe my American perspective of “meat and potatoes” is different than that in Stereophonics’ native UK; the ‘phonics have a level of earnestness and sincerity that is, with a few exceptions, inherently sacrificed by homegrown bands that become American rock radio staples. While I consider it absurd Stereophonics aren’t more popular in the US, perhaps the fact they aren’t is an affirmation of how apart the connotations of the meat and potatoes platitude are on either side of the pond.

Stereophonics has never been a smiles and sunshine kind of band, but neither has their material been as thoroughly dark as that found on Graffiti on the Train. Themes of separation, last chances, regret, nostalgia, and fleeting impermanence define the record. It should be noted that this is Stereophonics’ first album since the 2010 death of founding drummer Stuart Cable, and it’s tempting to ascribe the melancholia that pervades the work to his passing. As the bitterest of silver linings, however, Cable’s death seems to have reinvigorated the band’s artistry, with frontman Kelly Jones writing his best batch of songs since 2005’s Language. Sex. Violence. Other?.

From first song “We Share the Same Sun”, with its opening acoustic plucking and the lonesome character in Jones’ frayed voice, the template mood and feeling of isolation is established. The chorus finds the piece erupting into a raucous bombast and Jones howling the declaration that is the song’s title, that the only thing affording solace and connecting two geographically separated people is that the same star shines upon them. It may seem reassuring on the surface, but it's actually quite a lonely sentiment, and not all that soothing a balm, doing more to magnify the distance than nullify it. The diametrically opposing interpretations the song imparts -- either affirming or depressing -- set the stage for the tragic irony of the title track that follows.

Lyrically, “Graffiti on the Train” initially seems like a Hallmarkian, saccharine love song of a man spray painting a marriage proposal on the side of a commuter train. Such fluff is upended when the protagonist is accidentally killed by the train. The sucker-punch of emotion is made all the more heartrending when, in the second verse, the would-be fiancée learns of her partner’s death after seeing his request for her hand. The track is laced with a sense of dread or an elegiac quality from the outset, and the sweeping strings that build and swell throughout it hammer out the drama of the situation in cinematic fashion. If there is a message in the song, it is that the world is brutal and random, and cares nothing for your romantic aspirations; death, by its nature, follows its own schedule. Some might say it is a cynical position, but that doesn’t negate it being entirely accurate. It’s a despairing statement as well, and it is telling that the band chose the number to share its name with the album as a whole. As an aside, the song may feature Jones’ finest vocal take to date.

The theme of loss is continued with “Indian Summer”, the currently circulating single, wherein Jones wearily waxes nostalgic on a lost love. “She was the one / For me / She opened my eyes / To see”, he sings, and while on paper the lyrics are about as simple as can be, in his ever-forlorn voice, their gravitas reverberates in any listener who’s been in the same circumstance. Therein lies Jones’ key for being a great songwriter -- he can trigger your emotional cues by marrying the simplest language with evocative melodies.

As with “Graffiti on the Train”, the coloring effect of classic stringed instruments provides the extra texture needed to drive the point home. The violins’ presence is abounding throughout the record, handled deftly in virtually every circumstance and augmenting Stereophonics’ sound in just the right measure without dominating it. The instrument itself is referenced directly in “Violins & Tambourines”, a pensive piece with blues guitar lines that escalate into a mesmerizing swirl of rapid percussion and strained strings. “I killed a man / But life is cheap, they say”, Jones’ character states, again reinforcing the world’s callous disregard for mortals’ plans.

Apart from the blues motifs on “Violins & Tambourines”, the ‘phonics reference various other musical styles throughout the album. “Been Caught Cheating” is a Memphis soul send-up, complete with the barroom clatter of a drunken choir, electric organ washes, and pint glasses clinking. “In a Moment”, the record’s first single, dallies with electronic elements, and “Take Me” is a slice of noir ambience with a repetitive, hypnotic piano melody and a shackle-dragging rhythm. That it features Jones trading lyrics with a ghostly female only adds to the creep vibe: “Bowl me over from the start”, he says, before his spectral partner whispers in response, “Poison arrow through the heart.” The album even features a slight bit of funk on closer “Zoe”, the bass slapping infectious and resounding.

Despite the lauding, the album isn’t perfect. The few outright rockers, such as “Catacomb”, seem like token elements. “Roll of the Dice”, placed as the centerpiece of the record, goes for an epic sprawl but largely falls flat. “No-one’s Perfect”, a particularly dull ballad, also isn’t likely to garner repeated listens except when one is committed to absorbing the album from front to back. These criticisms aside, Graffiti on the Train is a marvelously realized, tightly played album. If rock records of this nature were indeed of the most basic variety, music fans would be so lucky. (And for the record, my praising of the album is genuine and not some play to avoid being the subject of a “Mr. Writer”-esque finger-pointing number on Stereophonics’ part.)

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pay Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.