Then and Now: Stereophonics

Then: A Thousand Trees

This is going back a bit…. August 1997, in fact. I remember hearing this tune on the legendary John Peel’s radio show as he was championing up -and-coming bands. Next chance I got I was in Richard’s Records – now long long gone – picking up the CD single in the days when they came with another 3 tunes on them and were worth collecting in their own right (but that’s another blog, surely).

For those unfamiliar with the Sterophonics, Jim, then they were three young Welsh lads, freshly signed to Richard Branson’s new V2 label, pushing out short, urgent songs with lyrics detailing gritty small-town life. Take this, their third single, which “was about rumours spreading around a very small town and somebody’s reputation being basically burned to the ground. It was a football coach who did some very untowards stuff with younger kids. He had his name celebrated in wrought iron outside the football pitch.”

While “it was basically about rumours in a very small environment crushing someone’s reputation” this, like most songs off their debut Word Gets Around were rooted in something real and were a little vital as a result.

Second album Performance and Cocktails contained more than a little of the same spark that infused their debut but started to slow things down too and signs of the ‘meat and potatoes’ rock were already sneaking in (‘Just Looking’). I caught them at Wembley Stadium in ’99 when they were one of the acts opening for Aerosmith and can confirm that then, at least, they could cut it live too.

Then I guess they got caught up in it all… the songs lost their focus, started to move toward acoustic, a cover of ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ took off… they began churning out what I’ve already referred to as ‘meat and potatoes’ – uninspired but does the job, I guess – music. I seem to remember seeing pictures of singer Kelly Jones stumbling bleary eyed out of bars with Ron Wood.. taking the stage at Isle of Wight festival in a white suit with ironed-flat hair.. the three-piece’s numbers swelled to five and then they fired their Keith Moon-style drummer, Stuart Cable. In keeping with tragic tradition Cable would be found dead in 2010 having drunk himself into a stupor and choked on his own vomit*.

I tuned out after their third album as they no longer appealed to my tastes. Several albums of by-the-numbers later..

Now: Fly Like an Eagle

I read an interview with Keith Richards around the same time as I was discovering the Stereophonics. In reply to a critique of then-new album Bridges to Babylon he pointed out that “the Stones aren’t here to break new ground, we’re here to be the Rolling  Stones.”

There’s something to be said for that, of course.

Some twenty plus years after their debut, the Stereophonics are still going. I wouldn’t say strong but they are still going. Hearing this on the radio last night, the DJ pointed out that the band is still working, still writing and are “still the Stereophonics” in that they haven’t stopped doing as they’ve always done, have never said “we’re going for  a disco sound on this one” or tried a concept album… They’re enjoying something of a renaissance as a result of the fact that a) they’ve been around so long and b) guitar-music is picking up place on the radio again.

But then, to keep doing something mediocre too… the reason nobody needs the Rolling Stones to break new ground is because they built a back catalogue of fucking belters. You can’t apply the same logic to all.

Every other year there’s a new Stereophonics album and every other year there’s the same ‘amazing new single’ and attempt at a little punch from them then everything sounds the same. There’s no real sentiment to it. I mean: “Hey hey, my my, everything’s gonna be alright, Hey hey, my my, everything’s gonna be just fine.” Ta, Kelly, I’d not caught up on my horoscope today.

If you like that, I guess, there’s nothing wrong with it but I find ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ symptomatic of all they’ve been doing lately – solid enough but uninspired and too often meandering instead of getting in and out.

I’m not going to be spending any time looking back at what I’ve missed on the strength of this one. Word Gets Around, however is always worth a listen.

*which you can’t dust for.

I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on: Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

I read a line this morning that said “Springsteen sounds like an episode of Home Improvement if it was a song” and it’s thrown me off somewhat… I came here to work on a couple of the Bruce posts that are in the works and now all I can hear is Tim Allen going “uuuuuuuuAH?”

I will persevere though and talk about The Boss, specifically about his first new album in seven years, Western Stars.

I’ll be honest – at first I was nervous, apprehensive. Springsteen had been talking about his new ‘solo’ album* before he began his Broadway residency and the idea of an album that had been long-laboured over as with Human Touch made me wonder if it was ever going to see the light of day. Throw in producer Ron Aniello** and lack of E Street band…

I was wrong. Very fucking wrong. Western Stars is Springsteen’s strongest in a long time. Where it sits in terms of my Least to Most is still tbc but the songs on here are far and away some of his best story tunes to date.

Now a lot was said in the run up to the album’s launch, and still is being said, about the sound. How this album is supposed to be influenced by the southern-California  pop sound of the 70’s championed by Burt Bacharach or Glenn Campbell…. I don’t know a lot about that because, well; frankly it’s not something I’m all that familiar with. It is a different sound to what you might expect from Springsteen – there’s no snarling guitar or stomp on here. But… at the same time….. it’s not. Some of Springsteen’s later career highlights such as ‘Paradise’, ‘The Last Carnival’ or ‘The Devil’s Arcade’ found Bruce moving into more contemplative tunes with strings vs screaming guitars and the sounds on Working on a Dream had already hinted at a taste for the lush.

It was only a matter of time before he ditched the rock and tried the orchestra and there’s also a progression in his ‘solo’ album sounds, from Nebraska to Ghost of Tom Joad to Devils and Dust there were increasing embellishments on the sound from the initial ‘one man, a guitar and a four-track’ approach. Here we have the ‘solo’ album that is, in fact, one man, a producer, multiple guest musicians, former band members and several orchestras…

Yet it takes a little getting used to, this approach. Exactly one and two-thirds of a song, in fact. Opener ‘Hitch Hikin’ isn’t a success. From a lyrical point of view we’re good, it’s standard Bruce travelling-tune fare complete with reference to a ‘souped-up ’72’. Yet for a song with little weight to it, the production is way over the top – I’m looking at you Aniello – with strings and slobbered over it as though building to some cinematic climax that simply isn’t there. It’s jarring.

‘Wayfarer’ suffers a similar fate, at first. Lyrically we’re fine – love the line “Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed, but when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head” – but the orchestral accompaniment here sounds as fake and appropriate as the tits on ‘Baywatch’. It doesn’t work. Until 02:30 that is. Bruce pushes his voice a little too hard and, instead of collapsing, everything comes together behind him – horns, strings and melody complete and, suddenly, it’s working together in a, yes, Burt Bacharach soundtrack style.

From here on in it gets good. Really good. Where this album works so very well is when the strings and music is minimal – used more as a graceful backdrop to what are some of Springsteen’s finest character and story songs with gentle sweeps of string and lap steel to move between verses and time as on the title track:

The tex-mex flavour of ‘Sleepy Joe’s Cafe’ lifts the pace a little while there’s a cadence to Bruce’s lyrical delivery that almost brings to mind the upbeat numbers on The River. Lead ‘singles’*** ‘Tuscon Train’ and ‘Hello Sunshine’ differ the least from Springsteen’s songwriting and sound – hell, one of them is a bloody ‘train’ song complete with steam train sounds at the end – but are nonetheless strong tunes.

The real highlights for me, though are songs like ‘Drive Fast (the Stuntman)’ – a deceptively simple gentle guitar strum and piano accompany the first lines before the orchestra joins gently to rise and fall with the story in gorgeous surges and rolling out like the soundtrack to a gritty short film****.  When the instrumental passages and orchestral accompaniment blend with – rather than being the focus – Springsteen’s lyrics and initial melody as they does with so many songs on here, Western Stars is a triumph.

Western Stars has met with near unanimous acclaim including critics that usually scoff at Springsteen and with good reason. It manages to be both a move in a different direction and familiar at the same time. The sheer strength of Springsteen’s songwriting on this album means that his songs are both immediate and reveal more on each listen as the sounds unfold beneath them – sounds which, while initially unexpected, suddenly make sense and you end up wondering why he hadn’t tried this earlier.

Whether we get to hear any of these live is another question – there’s no tour for Western Stars – after performing twelve million shows on Broadway the man’s entitled to a break I guess. Plus there’s now talk of a new E Street Band album being written and worked on at the end of the year. Then there’s the Tracks 2 and second Seeger Sessions album and….

We’ll see…

*only live releases have been credited to anything other than ‘Bruce Springsteen’

**case in point: High Hopes and Wrecking Ball are among Springsteen’s low points in terms of production and sound IMHO

***does anybody really do singles anymore?

****one of which is apparently due in autumn.

Spinning some new

In between working, reading the Pink Floyd biog, composing posts about Springsteen (2 in the works) and Dylan, pricing up a Jag and reading / writing fiction I also manage to listen to new music and notice that I’ve forgotten to post on here again.

So, in an attempt to fix the latter – here’s the new that’s been getting a lot of rotation of late:

The Pixies – On Graveyard Hill

Despite the fact that I love pretty much every Pixies album, for reasons various it was only a month or so back that I finally got round to listening to their 2016 album Head Carrier. Then, a few evenings back an email pings into my inbox and announces that they have a new one ready for later in the year and this beaut is available to hear now. It’s a sodding belter of a song.

Jambinai – Sawtooth

I picked up my copy of the new Jambinai album, Onda, yesterday from the same record store I discovered them in, it was only out on Friday but I’ve been enjoying this lead track for a bit now. Mixing  traditional Korean instruments with heavy, noisy guitars and a Nirvana-like rattly bass punch. I fucking love this band.

Big Thief – Cattails

I did something I hadn’t done in years last month and bought a physical copy of a music magazine – complete with a CD of music new and almost-new, hand-picked by The National as part of the press barrage surrounding their, inmho, naff new album. This one… isn’t the Big Thief song that was on their but it lead me to their new album U.F.O.F which has my hypnotised… it’s impossible to pin it down genre-wise but there’s something so… it’s a blissful thing with so much going on that’s perfect for sunny evening to spin, drift away listening  and remembering getting small to.

Sam Fender – Hypersonic Missiles

See… Sam Fender has been cropping up a lot on the one radio station I can stomach listening to these days. I’m gonna say this knowing how old it makes me sound – but this kid is only just 25. There’s a real power to his voice and he’s got some guitar and song-writing chops on him too, bit of Springsteen influence on this one (especially around the two minute mark)- amongst a bucket load of others – but this still fashions a sound of its own that I quite dig.

Gang of Youths – What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out?

I listen to the radio in both an effort to wake myself up on the commute and not get stuck in a rut with music by discovering something new. I’ve discovered a fair few additions to my record collection that way and I’m enjoying these guys lately. There’s some dark stuff to their lyrics but they manage to get it into a beat and tune that makes for a good listen. I think ‘Let Me Down Easy’ was the one that broke Gang of Youths on radio both here and at home – they folks come from that land Down Under – and this one is another getting turned up in the car etc and, again, wears a Springsteen influence on its sleeve.

Bruce Springsteen – Tucson Train

Speaking of the Boss. There’s a new album due to hit my shelves a little later this month… ‘Tuscon Train’ is the third song released (do they do singles anymore?) ahead of Western Stars‘ release in a week or two (it’s already getting cracking reviews) and is easily my favourite thus far. Really looking forward to this one…

Hello Sunshine

Well, it happened. I thought it wasn’t going to, certainly not so soon after his ‘Vegas residency’ period but I woke this morning to the news that Bruce Springsteen’s new album Western Stars will drop in June.

Given that I was reading the news while dropping the kids off at the pool* it meant I’d pre-ordered before I stood up.

Recorded predominantly at his home studio in New Jersey, this – the first album of new material in five years (seven if you don’t count those heated up left overs of High Hopes), Western Stars, to cite Springsteen’s website: takes his music to a new place, drawing inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

“This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” says Springsteen. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”

Cover art (the first not to feature Bruce’s mug on it since The Ghost of Tom Joad) and track listing have dropped and the first ‘single’ has also been released (not that these things really exist anymore, do they?) too:

Good things:

It’s a return to story-telling Bruce
Album themes encompass a “sweeping range of American themes, of highways and desert spaces, of isolation and community and the permanence of home and hope”
David Sancious
No Tom Morello
It’s been a long time coming – this could go either way: Human Touch was laboured but rushed-releases could use better quality control
The song title ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’ seems promising on its own to me
“Sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements”

 

Bad things:

Ron Aniello
No E Street Band

So… Am I excited? Fuck yeah, I’ve just finished another Bruce series that’s reminded me that there’s always a reason to tune in, even if there are warning signs production-wise.

*curious to see if that reference is known across the various blog-oceans

Hate To Say I Told You So….

But!!!!

Just a very short time ago on the back of Weezer’s ‘Africa’ cover I wrote on this very blog:

“Now I’m here to (cynically) bet that someone at Atlantic Records will be very much aware of how much attention ‘Africa’ has gotten their charges and noted that this ‘whimsical cover’ has gotten far more radio play, streams and downloads than their original compositions have for some time and that either before we get the Black album, or very soon after, we’ll get a Weezer Covers album.”

The Black Album is due in March.

However:

Weezer have quickly (it kinda shows) put together an album of covers – ignoring my advice of including those already established which is the last time I try and text Rivers some advice – of songs like Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), No Scrubs, Mr Blue Sky, Africa (of course) and…

I really should head down the bookies more…

Spinning The New… 2

Taking a momentary pause from the Pearl Jam series for, as those playing along at home may have sussed our, the final three all dropped between 1993 and 1996 and I thought it was time to take a quick gander at the newer stuff spinning right now.

This is fairly genre-specific. I’m not about to jump any sharks and start discussing Eminem’s ‘diss track’ (this is something that baffles me as a concept) or even start talking about the new Paul McCartney stuff (some of the worst material I’ve heard from the former Fab that didn’t involve frogs). While I have heard the new Smashing Pumpkins track I must have dozed off listening to it so it’s not going to be appearing here.

Mogwai – We’re Not Done Yet (End Title)

Another year another new Mogwai album. Well, sort of. These dons of post-rock have seemingly hit a real stride in terms of output as there’s a been a release per year of late alternating between ‘studio’ and ‘soundtrack’ album. Their soundtrack albums are different to their ‘own’ as the music is, obviously enough, written to suit someone else’s vision / story but each have been strong and worth additions to their catalogue (take Atomic as a prime example). Kin the film would appear to be destined to be seen by nobody: a box office and critical bomb. Kin the soundtrack should be heard by many – it’s a great, moody, sci-fi soundtrack that feels like it could just as easily blend into the background on Stranger Things (yes, I’m a very recent convert all binge-watched up to speed).

Jim James – Just A Fool

Back in 2015 My Morning Jacket were talking up the possibility of a very quick follow up the then-new The Waterfall on the back of how much material they’d written and recorded in those sessions. It hasn’t happened and can’t see it happening any time soon. Instead we got three solo albums from Jim James: one patchy, one a continuation of his covers project and this year’s Uniform Distortion which I picked up from the record store while collecting my pre-order of KinUniform Distortion feels actually like a very fine MMJ album and is well worth exploring.

Kurt Vile – Loading Zones

There’s a new Kurt Vile album dropping later this year and I’ve already got it on pre-order. I got hooked on Vile’s sound following Smoke Ring For My Halo. There’s something hypnotic about Vile’s sound and once you’re hooked.. well.

J Mascis – See You At The Movies

Oddly enough, there’s a direct line between Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis and Kurt Vile in terms of style and sound and the two have often shared a track. It’s fitting, then, that Mascis has a new solo record dropping this autumn too – his solo work is less wall-of-sound guitar than the Dino albums but he’s started mixing his trademark guitar solos and shredding into his folksier / acoustic solo stuff to strong results so I’m looking forward to Elastic Days – also on pre-order from my not-quite local dealer.

Only whispers of some quiet conversation

It’s 2018 and a very-much-a-90’s band is enjoying their biggest commercial success for a looong time with a cover of a very-much-an-80’s song all thanks to constant prompting from a twitter account after a fan saw said song on a programme produced by a streaming giant.

I am, of course, talking about Weezer and ‘Africa.’ Having heard the song used on Netflix’ ‘Stranger Things’ (of which I still haven’t been bothered enough to check out), a 15 year-old fan decided it would be a great idea for her favourite band to cover it and started a Twitter account called “@WeezerAfrica” and started messaging the band with tweets like “it’s about time you bless the rains down in Africa” etc.

Oddly, it worked. After trolling her by releasing a cover of ‘Rosanna‘, Rivers & Co dropped a cover of Africa. As covers go it’s alright; nothing new on the original save the addition of some power chords and a little more dancing on the keys. Still it’s a lot of fun and I’m sure I’ll have “do do do de do do dooo” in my head forevermore.

 

If it sounds like it was recorded quickly and without any real effort it’s because it probably was: I genuinely don’t think anyone expected it to turn into the ‘hit’ it has or for it to receive so much attention. Both the radio stations I flick between in the morning made it their record of the week, I’ve seen that the band have been popping on tv shows various and numerous to play the track (even being joined by Toto member Steve Pocaro) and – in a world where streams count toward such things – it’s seen them crack the Hot100 in the States for the first time in a long long time.

While Weezer are definitely in my wheelhouse and collection*, this isn’t a ‘music news’ blog and Toto are far from the variety of music usually covered on these ‘pages’ so: why mention it?

Well I’m here to place a wager. Weezer were due to be dropping their ‘Black’ album (Weezer have a series of self titled albums – their debut, third, sixth and tenth – with the band photographed against a different coloured backdrop and known by their colours) any day now. It had been rumoured for a June release. There’s no sign of it. Now while Weezer themselves might not be so cynical or money-driven (although they have done the music cruise thing) they are signed to a label, a major one at that – Atlantic.

Now I’m here to (cynically) bet that someone at Atlantic Records will be very much aware of how much attention ‘Africa’ has gotten their charges and noted that this ‘whimsical cover’ has gotten far more radio play, streams and downloads than their original compositions have for some time and that either before we get the Black album, or very soon after, we’ll get a Weezer Covers album.

To be fair, the band have a good few available to begin pulling that track list together soon. In between releasing dire albums of their own they recorded a note for note cover of ‘Paranoid Android.’

Not to mention their cover of ‘Unbreak My Heart’ – yes; the Toni Braxton one – from the 2010 odds-and-sods comp Death to False Metal and the numerous covers that pepper their b-sides and bonus tracks including surprisingly good takes on ‘Viva la Vida’ and ‘Are Friends Electric’…So, my bet is that – now that the wider music world is aware of Weezer’s capability with a cover its only a small matter of time before label or band cashes in.

Oh, and if you’re after the definitive cover of ‘Africa’, don’t worry; I’ve got what you need right here.

*Eleven studio albums which, on the Mumbling About scale, have a ‘Very Good, Ok, Absolute Shite’ ratio of 5:3:3.