The Soundboard Stereo – April 2020

It feels as though it’s still going to be a while before anything considerable happens within the music world. The future of the entire live industry still remains up in the air, and with a considerable number of high-profile releases being delayed to later in the year, the next couple of months seem almost barren in comparison to what’s come already this year. It’s seems horrendously clichéd to call these ‘uncertain times’, but rarely has that description seemed more apt, especially when there’s no conceivable way to predict what the next month will bring in any tangible form. But we’ll get there when we get there – for now, here’s what’s been on The Soundboard Stereo throughout April…

Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

She’s long been the coveted princess of indie girls everywhere, and Lana Del Rey’s major label debut Born To Die still remains a bible to plenty of people close to a decade later, even with her more expansive and experimental recent records receiving widespread critical acclaim. The reason Born To Die still sticks today is the commitment made to sell Lana as something fresh and exciting, with the vintage-tinged image particularly pushed on this record cycle arguably the most synonymous thing about the singer, with good reason. The lyrics on Born To Die are by far the most abysmal part, with Del Rey vapidly ticking off boxes on a not-like-other-girls rebel checklist to the point of total inauthenticity at times. It seems that the only thing worse than watching your friend go back to the sleaze who’s mistreated her too many times is hearing Lana Del Rey simpering about how she’d die for her bad-boy lover wearing a red dress and kissing him in the rain. Plenty of the songs so obviously designed to be spaces for her to show off her vocals are monotone snoozefests (Blue Jeans being one of the biggest offenders), and those where she tries to experiment don’t land (Off To The Races is genuinely embarrassing with its attempted rapping and babydoll yips). The songs that are most effective are the ones that are kept relatively simple. The pretty melodies of Radio and Diet Mountain Dew (Del Rey’s own take on a characterful pop track) are more than enough to keep you hooked, while the lower range of Video Games helped by opulent production feels really set apart from anything else. Video Games is a hint of pure beauty that Born To Die doesn’t quite have the maturity to house too much of (although the luxurious strings that anchor much of the record’s instrumentation show the ambition was there). It’s easy to see why teens looking for edginess to fill the Skins-shaped holes in their hearts gravitated towards Born To Die in 2012, but it’s definitely not an album that can credibly exist outside of that specific moment in time. • GJ

Various Artists – Birds Of Prey: The Album

You can really tell that Birds Of Prey wants to distance itself as much as possible from Suicide Squad. Not only is it actually a decent film, but the callbacks are perfunctory and nothing more, and even right down to the soundtrack, this feels much more curated to fit the mood than the exercise in splatterpaint playlisting that was its predecessor’s effort. For one, the focus has been put on a soundtrack of exclusively female artists to match the central cast of the film (something which does fall a bit flat when Halsey’s cut is a collaboration with Bring Me The Horizon and when Sofi Tukker are a mixed-gender act), but there’s a freewheeling glee here that matches the slightly manic vibe of the film itself, especially highlighted by Doja Cat’s clattering Boss Bitch as effectively its theme song. Of course, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, as is always the case with efforts like this; there’s always going to tracks that fall by the wayside, and for some of the more standard pop cuts here, that’s no less true. Otherwise, the jagged interpolation of Dean Martin’s Sway from Saweetie and GALXARA has a lot of firepower behind it, as does Halsey’s Experiment On Me, where the heavier rock instrumentation sees her continue a rather pleasing winning streak she’s currently on. Conventionality isn’t always bad either, as shown by Megan Thee Stallion and Normani’s Diamonds and Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s take on It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World that gets a full version to flesh out the film’s snippet, but this album is a lot more successful when it really goes for broke and touches upon slightly weirder and more off-piste territory. It’s not necessarily a viable commercial approach as the film itself has proven, but like the film, there’s a good time to be had here. • LN

Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart

The title of ‘showman’ is one that’s long been used to describe Frank Turner, and for the most part, it’s one that he’s proven in his recorded music as well as on stage. Be it the enveloping narratives of his folk songs or the full-band showstoppers that have become more and more his forte, it often feels like the performance comes first. Tape Deck Heart, perhaps one of the most overlooked albums in Turner’s catalog, turned seven this week, and is home to some of his most personal tracks. Not only is Tape Deck Heart an album that feels 100% authentically real, at times it feels like an accidental reinvention of the breakup album. Every stage of a relationship coming to an end is documented here – the immediate aftermath bender (Recovery), the sombre ‘I’m not over you’ stage (The Way I Tend To Be), the close to the bone runthroughs of what went wrong (Tell Tale Signs), even the breakup itself (Anymore). But alongside the glimpses into his personal journey, Turner uses his trademark conversational delivery and ability to make every feeling universal. Good & Gone’s themes about general disillusionment with love and the world and Losing Days’ lyrics of ageing are presented chirpily and practically inviting singalongs as many of his songs do. Tape Deck Heart is one of the most bread-and-butter Frank Turner records in his discography, but it’s both the emotion he’s inspired by and the way he plays with its delivery that really tips it into being one of the best. This album shows that an artist doesn’t need to reinvent their genre to make their best work – simply fine-tuning what people love already, in Turner’s case, himself, is the way to go. • GJ

Sam Hunt – Southside

There’s a lot to unpack about Southside that would take more time and space that what’s possible in this very limited entry, but the wildly varying discourse surrounding Sam Hunt’s long-delayed sophomore album acts as a rather fair summation in itself. Opinions have been all over the map, ranging from claims of this being a country game-changer to the final nail in the coffin for one of the genre’s worst ever periods, and while it’s easy to see where both sides are coming from, the general reaction from this side is one of bemusement more than anything else. After all, it’s not like Body Like A Back Road or Kinfolks needed to be lumped in here, given that they don’t fit the mood of a sullen, gloomy Sam Hunt immolating his own emotions after a breakup that, given some of the implications on closer Drinkin’ Too Much, isn’t being handled with much grace or dignity whatsover. And that can work when it’s allowed to really seethe or explode with vitriol, but beyond a couple of solid hooks that offer more than a few passing glances at the R&B-inflicted style that Hunt’s entire career has been built on, there’s not much like that there. There’s definitely curdling angst within Young Once and Downtown’s Dead, but the stiff, mechanical production doesn’t help, and when Hunt seems to be almost constantly stuck in a frame of mind that’s ready to swallow itself who at nearly every passing turn, it doesn’t make for a likable listen as much as one that’s ultimately pitiable and just kind of sad. There’s bound to be plenty more takes on Southside ready to strike more savagely than that, but it’s just a bit difficult to see how it could spark much more emotion than just profound boredom, at least from this perspective. • LN

Thirty Seconds To Mars – This Is War

Thirty Seconds To Mars’ journey from untouchable rock mainstays to laughing stock of the genre has been a fascinating one to observe. It’s not like they haven’t always been a controversial band, but their 2018 release America, a shameless and soulless trendhopper of a record, served as the final nail in the coffin for plenty of eyebrow raisers. Looking back to the height of the then-trio’s success in 2009 with their most famous record This Is War seems to be a sweet spot in their career trajectory, their sanding down the edges of the rock anthemia they’d pushed for years prior new enough to feel fresh without giving Jared Leto the time to become more loathsome as a person. Armed with the knowledge of where public opinion of Thirty Seconds To Mars is in 2020, it’s much easier to roll your eyes at some of the more pretentious lyrics or choir of (probably brainwashed) Echelon backing up Jared Leto’s cavernous howls, but sonically, This Is War is the most true to themselves the band have ever been. The instrumentation here matches the drama in Leto’s vocals perfectly (not doing so being another reason for America’s failure). Kings And Queens is still the perfect specimen when it comes to anthemic 2010s rock songs and until the final two tracks, the calibre of such epic songwriting remains impressively consistent – if slightly self-indulgent, but hey, Jared Leto’s in the band – throughout. Even non-singles like Vox Populi and Search And Destroy have the scope to soundtrack some kind of unimaginable space journey or the second coming of Christ. It seems that enjoyment of this album all but depends on your stance on pseudo-philosophical anthems and Jared Leto’s personality in general – if your fight-or-flight is triggered by either (or both), don’t revisit this record. It’s easy to hate Thirty Seconds To Mars, but This Is War shows a degree of quality that explains why they stuck around in rock conversation as long as they did. • GJ

Natives – Indoor War

This is an odd choice to cover for a segment like this, as Natives, along with other vast swathes of early-2010s Britrock that never seemed to rise above its meagre roots, are pretty much irrelevant at this point. This difference between them and others of their ilk, though, is when Can’t Say No has a chorus that lodges itself in the brain for the best part of six years without having barely been listened in that time frame, you know there’s a pop jam there that’s gone cruelly overlooked. In truth, Indoor War has a good number of moments like that – This Island and Ghost fill a very similar role, while Let Go and The Horizon, even though less uber-memorable, still hit harder than most other pop-rock in their scene and era. There’s not a great deal to say beyond that, especially when Natives still managed to succumb to the very clandestine nature of production at the time which has pretty much consigned this album to the history books now, but this is a throwback that didn’t really get much love at the time, and that’s kind of a shame upon a revisit. It’s the sort of album that scratches a particular itch with its familiarity, and even if it’s as ephemeral and weightless as it comes in places, it gets the job done all the same, and few albums of this stripe get it done as well as this one. • LN

Words by Luke Nuttall (LN) and Georgia Jackson (GJ)

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