Stereophonics are the prototypical stadium band -- big, anthemic choruses; grinding guitars; a raspy-voiced, charismatic front man, and sing-a-long songs that almost beg you to light and raise your lighters in the air. Oh, and they've made a lot of money doing this too. That's nothing to sneer at when you hail, as the Stereophonics do, from small town, working class Britain. Does this almost sound like Oasis? Well, in a sense, it's not a bad comparison. But where Noel Gallagher is a master at spinning melodies, Kelly Jones (Stereophonics lead singer and guitarist) is a superb wordsmith.
Songs like "A Thousand Trees" and "Local Boy in a Photograph" (from the excellent Word Gets Around, 1997) and more recently "The Bartender and the Thief" (from 1999's less consistent Performance & Cocktails) demonstrate Jones' almost screenplay-like approach to songwriting. His lyrics are highly visual and focus on strong storytelling, much of it drawing from experiences in his youth and his Welsh hometown. That combined with the instrumental bite of Word Gets Around vaulted Stereophonics to the top echelon of the Britpop hordes. Performance & Cocktails continued the visceral storytelling, but lacked the intensity of the debut -- an extremely common occurrence wherein bands use up all their best tunes on their debut and are forced to hurry up and pen new songs for a follow-up while plowing around the world on tour selling the debut record.
That grind, combined with the natural boredom talented musicians experience with endlessly repeating themselves, made Jones question the direction in which the band was headed. Sure, they could keep putting out one Word Gets Around after another, but then they'd just be AC/DC, a band they were often compared to in the early days. So, this past spring, Stereophonics were over here in the States on an acoustic tour. Jones' songs are good enough to stand up to that format, but it was an unexpected move nonetheless for this most electric of bands.
The acoustic tour and Jones' recent comments that he was growing weary with his band's format, led many, including this writer, to expect a drastic departure on Just Enough Education to Perform. In reality, the new album simply ups the ante ballad-wise and broadens the instrumentation, a direction hinted at on Performance & Cocktails and more fully explored here. But even these ballads are anthemic and every song on the album seems aimed soundly at the stadium crowd not the quiet, little corner club.
Nevertheless, it's the ballads that are the strongest material -- namely the countryish "Step on My Old Size Nines" with its moody harmonica and mournful guitar. While we're on the subject, the overall tone of Just Enough Education to Perform is moody. Stereophonics music has never been celebratory; rather it's been documentary -- relaying the stories of everyday life, an updated version of Ray Davies work with the Kinks and Paul Weller's with the Jam. But this bunch of tunes is downright maudlin at times. That suggests the band is both listening to Travis/Coldplay mopey rock and more than a bit weary with their fame and the expectations that go along with it.
That downcast tune also pervades the first big single from the new record, "Mr. Writer", which is a somewhat catty volley at music writers. The tune was a hit, but shows Jones' concerns are far from being working class-based these days. He's been slagged off in the British press for this, as resentful journos take out their frustration over a weak paycheck on a rich, complaining rock star. But in a way, you can't blame them completely. A song that critiques music journalists may be of vital concern to the rock 'n' roll one million pound/dollar club, but it's not the sort of issue that is a hot topic at the local pub. Still, Jones hasn't lost his knack for vignettes and these songs -- while not as strong overall as those on the last two records -- stand heads and tails above almost anything on the US pop charts at the moment.
So the Stereophonics haven't made their musical quantum leap yet -- and perhaps they never will. Kelly Jones and the boys are genuine entertainers and a bit too populist to be interested in making a Kid A or Amnesiac (Radiohead). This is a band that still wants to connect with the masses and not run away into some ambient, post-electro corner, and ultimately, that's a mighty worthy goal.