The Welsh rockers' last album put to bed whatever hints of singular creative direction could be descried on their first three releases, so why should their latest be any different?
"Wanna feel / Like I did before / Time changes me / I'm like I never was"
-- Stereophonics, "Drowning"
When I first discovered the Stereophonics in 1998, I realized there was much less distance between the small towns of St. Paul, Alberta, Canada and Cwmaman, South Wales than I had previously imagined. The vibrant narratives of their debut Word Gets Around evoked a closed universe that I felt I knew as well as lead singer and lyricist Kelly Jones did: a tight-knit, conservative circle-jerk of gregarious shopkeepers, ambitious local movers, nosy neighborhood Himmlers and lovable inebriates, over which equal parts of perversion and tragedy hung like ominous thunderheads in the wide sky. Jones was no poet, but his tableaus had a realism that was grimly funny and just lightly tinged with an empathetic sadness that had something distinctly Welsh to it. His peat-and-smoke vocals were underscored by swelling, no-nonsense pub-rock, a combination that perfectly suited the portraits of village life he provided. It was a nearly flawless debut that seemed direct, fresh and new next to the detached macrocosmic scope that pervaded the British rock of the period.
So here we stand, a decade later. Kelly Jones wants to feel like he did before, but he's like he never was. Time, it seems, changes him.
There are a lot of reasons why the Stereophonics have failed to deliver on the early promise of Word Gets Around and its super-solid follow-up Performance and Cocktails, but the complaints begin in 2001 with their third record, Just Enough Education to Perform. Already polarizing music critics by daring to be a British band that didn't sound British, the 'Phonics gave the pop intelligentsia unlimited cannon fodder for the foreseeable future with the tiresome put-down single "Mr. Writer". Blowing a raspberry at the critics is acceptable for rappers but not for cocksure rock stars, especially when the broadside is so completely unengaging. They retained a few apologists (notably at Q and NME), but "Mr. Writer" hardened their opponents and prodded the indifferent towards dislike. Soon afterwards, original drummer Stuart Cable was turfed, taking his Keith Moon-like energy to a television talk show and leaving his old mates to slot in an Argentinian pretty-boy as a merely adequate replacement.
Though they were hardly lighting the world on fire before the skins switch-up, the Stereophonics are starkly different bands before and after it. Before, they were an evolving creative unit, leaning on the lad-rock narrations that brung them to the dance but also waltzing through jaunty charmers like "I Wouldn't Believe Your Radio" and "Step On My Old Size Nines". After, they transformed into the Welsh Nickelback, turning out rockers from a factory mould and leaning on the one-note masculinity of Kelly Jones. 2005's Language. Sex. Violence. Other? was the brand roll-out of the latter, and though it spawned their biggest hit on both sides of the Atlantic (the repetitive faux-shoegazer "Dakota"), it put to bed whatever hints of singular creative direction could be descried on their first three releases. And really, why should their latest, Pull the Pin, be any different?
The disappointments mount before even a single track finishes. The Spinal Tap-esque album cover. Embarrassingly labored attempts at political risibility in opener "Soldiers Make Good Targets" ("I'll take a war / I'll take mine with fries"). Jones' gravelly voice, once so rousing but now toneless, predictable, and inescapably bored. The cock-rock backing track, all edge with no sharpness, all volume with no energy or verve. The majority of the record rolls off the conveyor belt in a similar fashion. You've heard this before, and I can guarantee you it was better when you did.
Stereophonics 2.0 do slightly better when the power chords are dialed down and Jones scrapes by with what little melancholy he can still muster. "Bright Red Star" is the truest example of this, though it could certainly do with a bit of variation. "It Means Nothing" is handcuffed by bloodless clichés and a lazily nihilistic refrain, but the band's past dabbling in shoegaze finally bears fruit otherwise, with occasionally lovely results. Richard Jones (no relation to Kelly, or to Tom or Terry, for that matter) provides some soothing bass waves on the tune, as he also does on the decent-enough sunshine ballad "Daisy Lane". These are minor pleasures, but they save the proceedings from total tedium.
Maybe the most disappointing thing about the Stereophonics' current alignment is that, to Kelly Jones, it seems to represent a genuine return to their straight-ahead rock roots. Sadly, it doesn't feel like it did before. Maybe a decade of rock stardom has sapped Jones' lyrical wellspring, or at least his will to tap into it. A strong taste of the lack of direction is evident as the final seconds of "Drowning" trickle away and Jones' wails turn distinctly, gratingly off-tune as they fritter off into oblivion. Time's changed him, and he's like he never was: an uninspiring hack.