Stereophonics – Graffiti On The Train

Phonics - GraffitiAt the time the Stereophonics released ‘Dakota’ it felt like they were getting past it. After their first two albums had rocked us with some great anthems, they stripped it all down to acoustic-rock sound of Jeep followed by the over-indulgent 70’s rock plod of You Gotta Go There To Come Back (possibly symptomatic of overuse of drugs and alcohol?), they then dealt with the sacking of their drummer Stuart Cable. And yet, when released ‘Dakota’ was fresh and one of the best they’d ever written. How could this be? A re-invention was on the cards.

I positively loved the track and later album Language, Sex, Violence, Other? It was the first release from the “new band”, with Javier on drums and everything just seemed so invigorated. Eight years have passed since those releases, and in many ways it feels like that was a blip, and not a yardstick between the original band and glimpsed future (which didn’t then happen).

The future wasn’t as rosy as it seemed. Sure Language, Sex, Violence, Other? was a great album which had teeth and rocked three to four-minute tracks throughout. Soon after the rot set in with direction changes (more re-inventions?) which were lack of direction and not anything else.

Subsequent albums seemed somehow to follow the ’every second album’ rule. That is, every other album was good, but none seemed powerful from start to finish. God forbid you saw them on the intervening album tours where at least a third of the songs plodded from a new album nobody really knew. Is it any wonder then that a Greatest Hits album and tour ensued? The band played two nights in Glasgow and I saw them on both. Phenomenal nights. So the fact is, Stereophonics can write some stunning tunes. Why don’t they write stunning tunes anymore?

Today sees the release of their eighth album, Graffiti On The Train. It is with trepidation that I press play on the CD player and the slow beginnings of opener ‘We Share The Same Sun’ are heard. I feel that horrible fear begin to rise in me, but soon the song kicks in proper and what we have is a traditional ‘Phonics rocker in the Performance & Cocktails vein. It is fairly impressive stuff.

It’s a shame then that the title track – up next – slows it all down to simple guitar picking and a vocal lament which loses all the bravado and momentum of before. I mean, the song is actually OK (if a bit of a repetitive chorus) but it’s not the best song Kelly Jones has written, and definitely doesn’t deserve to share the title of the album.

‘Indian Summer’ brings us out of the monotony very quickly with a bit of a ‘Dakota’ guitar and ‘It Means Nothing’ chorus. Nothing wrong with aping your own songs, in fact here the band do a great job of being instantly recognisable as the Stereophonics without resorting to poor facsimiles of all that has went before. The problem is that you soon realise the song just plods along and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It’s all just a bit “nice”.

‘Take Me’ is a weird, almost psychedelic track with female vocals and it seems entirely out-of-place yet is something rather brilliant. It is not the “instantly recognisable as the Stereophonics” track that came before that is for sure. Then to mess it all up again ‘Catacombs’ arrives with distorted guitar, swagger and aplomb. Ironically this is my favourite track on the album. A little nugget of joy in a beige, messy puddle of lack of direction or surety.

‘Roll The Dice’ is forgettable before we get a slow ‘Violins and Tambourines’ which sounds like it wants to be ‘I Stopped To Fill My Car Up’. Only it isn’t, and I wish it was half as good as that underrated track.

More songs ensue, until we get to the painful ‘No-one’s Perfect’ which proves that very fact by being less than perfect! Imagine all the crooning, slow acoustic songs of Kelly Jones’ solo album or the worst tracks on Keep Calm and Carry On, but somehow even worse and more pointless. ‘Billy Davey’s Daughter’ on Word Gets Around and most of Jeep proves that they can write amazing slow acoustic numbers. And I do love the slower side of the band, so I am not simply bemoaning the lack of distorted guitar and rockier numbers. What has happened to the band who could write those fantastic early albums? When I saw them in December road-testing some of the tracks from this album, I wrote “..the band seemed re-invigorated and ready to prove themselves again. Let’s hope that in 2013 we continue to see the return of the Stereophonics…” Where is that re-invigoration, has it moved on already?

Since their appearance on the music scene in 1996 much has happened, including huge selling albums, massive shows, solo albums, the death of a friend and former drummer, and many other things which I could only guess at. Things which I would imagine would fuel songwriting and give much impetus to produce their best work. Why then has the song-writing become so boring? Kelly Jones used to tell fantastic stories and paint perfectly formed pictures with his lyrics whilst the music rocked, swayed or tip-toed the message home. Not now.

I’ve listened to this album three times in the hope I was missing something. I fear, the only thing I’m missing is the Stereophonics I once loved so much.

Gareth Fraser
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