Stereophonics hail from Cwmaman, a former mining village in South Wales with a population of only around 1,000 people. This actually proves to be relevant fact when it comes to the band’s tenth album Scream Above The Sounds, not only because it proves that success can be awarded to literally anyone from anywhere if fortune fares them well, but also it’s hard to think of a more convincing piece of evidence than this album – this really does sound like a pub band from the middle of nowhere.
It’s at least understandable to a degree; they formed in the Britpop eye of the storm and have only suffered the same fate of so many similar acts by reaching a point where a combination of approaching middle age and being anchored to the past has begun to take its toll. But for as ultimately featureless and characteristic of the crossover alternative scenes of the late ’90s and early 2000s as they are, the argument could at least be made that songs like The Bartender And The Thief and Dakota have a boozy, arena-pleasing vibe that can work in certain settings. With Scream Above The Sounds, this is a band who’d sound far more comfortable in the corner of a pub playing for free pints on a Friday night.
To be as optimistic as possible, there is a chance that could work, giving a band who are far past those humble roots a sense of warmth and intimacy again. The problem is that Stereophonics’ take on that sound is so bland and borderline geriatric in how it goes about it, struggling to hit any better results than a middle-aged Status Quo tribute band with the sloppy pianos and saxophone on Geronimo, or production so muddy that it’s almost opaque on the already drab dad-rock of Cryin’ In Your Beer. For as repetitive as the one riff cycle of Taken A Tumble is, at the very least it picks up a bit more pace and actually goes somewhere, more than can be said for so much of this album and how laborious it can all feel. It’s not that it has much to work with, though, not when the guitars feel so flat and dry as they do on What’s All The Fuss About? and Elevators, songs that run out of steam way before the end and are left to scramble together some hastily-fashioned closer that still goes on too long.
It’s not as if Kelly Jones offers any sort of solace though, and while his rougher, raspy vocals are usually the thing that keep Stereophonics hinged to something that at least resembles quality, the laziness in his contributions here is palpable. Occasionally he does come up good, like the more pensive, detailed storytelling of All In One Night, and even if the quiet, basic strum of Boy On A Bike couldn’t get more boring, there’s at least believable emotion in his vocals that’s sold well. As for everywhere else, Scream Above The Sounds serves as the ideal evidence for his voice simply not working against such trundling, mellow instrumentation, forcing him to fully hem himself in for a flat moan that’s not even close to engaging. As heartfelt and personal as Before Anyone Knew Our Name is supposed to be, a piano ballad dedicated to late Stereophonics drummer Stuart Cable, there’s nothing out of the ordinary in terms of emotional reaction apart from maybe the odd line, and the song as a whole just falls flat. It doesn’t help when lyrics as a whole seem to be marginalised here; the likes of Chances Are and Would You Believe only act as vehicles for lines to fit together, rarely ever conflating something meaningful with something memorable.
On the whole there’s just no clear reason for this album to exist other than pad out daytime radio playlists that have been starved of another middle-of-the-road outing from Stereophonics for a couple of years . That may be the case with their last couple of albums too, but even in its best moments, Scream Above The Sounds can’t even reach that already lowered bar of quality. This is just sad, seeing a band go from simple yet effective arena-fillers to old and in the way in what was an ultimately inevitable, but totally undesirable. For Stereophonics in 2017, “undesirable” seems to be the most pertinent descriptor.
For fans of: Coldplay, Feeder, Travis
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Scream Above The Sounds’ by Stereophonics is out now on Parlophone Records.