I have my suspicions that Kelly Jones and co. probably can’t quite believe their luck. Scream Above The Sounds is, as mentioned above, the band’s tenth LP and marks twenty five years since the Valley boys first left Cwmaman. Considering they were at one point labelled with the same ever unimaginative and dull ‘post-Britpop’ label that will forever haunt Feeder’s career until Buck Rogers is no longer considered science fiction, Stereophonics meanwhile have been the antithesis of the Welsh weather: consistent. In fact, Wikipedia reliably informs me that Stereophonics are, amazingly, one of only eight U.K. acts to have five number one albums or more; in terms of commercial success that puts them alongside Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and fellow Brit rockers Oasis. Add to that the fact that Stereophonics were always more interested in Bad Company than Blur, and their defiance of the label and move away from guitar pop and Tom Jones collaborations makes a lot more sense.
The anomaly remains: language.sex.violence.other; the band’s 2005 release and, more specifically, its lead single Dakota. It is still a radio-rock album and a pretty good one at that, but there’s a certain delight Jones seems to take in writing a big singalong pop hit. Enter Dakota, a song whose worth is still determined by how many drinks you’ve had and how competent the covers band currently playing it are: in beer gardens the world over – well, at least in Wales – Dakota will forever live on.
All of this is a slightly long-winded way of bringing us to the new album which, to my ears, is not the follow up to the very likeable, back-to-basics good tunes of Keep The Village Alive but instead a half-hearted sequel to language.sex.etc; and it sounds conflicted. Take the opener and single Caught By The Wind – there’s this two note guitar line played with as much gusto as possible, which unfortunately cuts through the sub-par lyrics and the chord progressions straight from a mid-2000’s Coldplay album in quite an irritating way. It certainly isn’t the rousing start every album should hope for. Taken A Tumble is an improvement at least: crisp crunchy guitar riffs and tight bass and drum lines in the chorus at least give a first proper hook into the record. Lyrically it might be pretty routine, “I’ve taken a tumble / I’m falling head over heels for you” but this is part of what Stereophonics do best; arms around your best mate, belting choruses at full tilt. Can we call this the start of the album instead?
In the very next song however, some of the conflict of influences I mentioned earlier starts to become clear. What’s All The Fuss About? (my thoughts whenever someone mentions U2 these days) features Jones reaching into his upper register and sounding a bit like Thom Yorke of all people, while instrumentally there’s a flamenco lean with rolling drums underpinning mariachi trumpet and nylon acoustic guitars. It’s not bad, it just sounds strange, nigh on out of place. It’s even stranger next to Geronimo, a blues-rock stomper with a rough and ready saxophone solo. Another single, All In One Night, follows. With electronic drums, endless guitar arpeggios and lyrics concerning coming back from a night out to find your partner in labour and as you drive them to A&E you crash the car and have to deliver the baby while the police try to arrest you. I do hate it when that happens. Before Anyone Knew Our Name takes up the mantle of ballad, an acoustic piano is the only accompaniment to Kelly Jones’ emotive vocals about growing up in a small town and wanting to get away; it also feels like a tribute to late original drummer Stuart Cable. The song’s spartan and well written enough to not warrant any further criticism from yours truly. It is a bit drawn out though.
Would You Believe? is a plodding electronic tinged number that feels a bit, how to put this, toothless? Let’s just say when Jones sings “I done things I shouldn’t have done” I agree, just not with the ‘things’ he’s referring to. The blues rock makes a final appearance before closing time on Cryin’ In Your Beer, marred somewhat by Jones’ vocals doing Twist and Shout style ‘ahh, ahh, ahh’s’ at the end of the chorus which, if I may, sounds just awful. Yet come the closer, Elevators, I find myself coming around to the album again. Jangly twelve string acoustic guitar and sharp slide lines combined with a solid chorus and very Lynyrd Skynyrd solo in the bridge make for some very appealing country rock. If anything it makes me less well disposed towards the other ten tracks; Elevators isn’t perfect but against so much mediocrity it sounds superb.
So, are Stereophonics guilty of just treading water until inspiration strikes in earnest? Well in a word, yes. Even the deluxe version of the album, including five additional songs – none of which enhance the record – feels like a holding pattern and not particularly special either. It has some moments of enjoyment certainly, but not enough to save the whole package. And yet, the album is on course to be number one in the charts this week so either I don’t know what I’m talking about or the whole of Wales has bought it. They do love Dakota after all.