The Soundboard Stereo – May 2020

To the surprise of absolutely no one, May has been another relatively quiet month as the music industry remains in a state of flux or turmoil. Yes, there does look to be a light coming at the end of the tunnel, but with the status of live shows still up in the air and numerous albums that were due to come out around now being pushed back to either later in the year or just indefinitely, there hasn’t been a great deal to say when it comes to new music. That only looks set to continue into June given the natural summer lull that most likely won’t be offset by anything else, but for now, here’s what’s been on The Soundboard Stereo throughout May…

The Get Up Kids – Something To Write Home About

At this point, over two decades after its release, The Get Up Kids’ Something To Write Home About needs no introduction. It’s widely heralded as a classic within emo, the album that put the band on the map and spurned on a level of momentum that they’re arguably still riding today. And yes, all of that’s true, and Something To Write Home About does still indeed hold up today, albeit not quite to level of some of the efforts of their peers. That’s because The Get Up Kids have always favoured a style of subtlety that has more in common with indie-rock, and while affixing that to Holiday or Action & Action has given them some real legs to stand on, it doesn’t drive in a hook that prevails with the same amount of ubiquity as others have. That said, for what this album is and what it represents, it’s incredibly difficult to fault, mostly because The Get Up Kids had already nailed melodic composition at this point, from the progressions of Red Letter Day and I’m A Loner Dottie, A Rebel that positively scream that they come from the late-‘90s, to the excellent warmth in sound that emanates from Valentine and The Company Dime, to the phenomenal closer I’ll Catch You with still remains among the gold standard of emo ballads to this very day. As for the band themselves, Matt Pryor has always had a remarkably distinct voice even here, and in conveying a lot of the emo dejection at a time when such a thing wasn’t completely trite, it fits wonderfully against a more homespun, ramshackle take on the sound that occupies just the right middle ground between detailled Midwestern emo and the more pop-centric fare that would come in the 2000s. It’s the sort of album that’s left such a lasting impact in the name of this band that it really doesn’t need any further explanation; it’s a classic for a reason, and that can still be felt today. • LN

Lady Gaga – Joanne

Despite all the craziness of Lady Gaga’s artistic persona throughout the majority of her career, it’s always been a universally-known fact that she more than has the the talent to justify any longevity she may enjoy. Much of her time in music has relied heavily on image and aesthetics alongside her triple threat status and powerhouse voice, but after the mixed reception to her fourth record ARTPOP, how could she pull off a fifth reinvention and still manage to shock? By toning it down, of course. On Joanne, a cuttingly personal and homegrown record, Gaga pulls heavily from country and soft rock; even the more pop-leaning tracks on Joanne have more traditional instruments at the helm, feeling like a complete transformation compared to how we usually hear her. It’s these cuts that fare the best, particularly Diamond Heart, John Wayne and Perfect Illusion, the three tracks that balance energy and Gaga’s personality flawlessly. The issue with much of Joanne is that these two factors are often missing (or even completely lacking in much of the second half of the record), with the focus understandably being on the album’s lyrics and slower songs in order to show them off. That said, while what Gaga brings to the table is always at its best with full pop production, the stripped back instrumentation gives her voice more of a chance to shine than ever before. Joanne (plus the singer’s collaborations with Tony Bennett) had every opportunity to win over those quick to dismiss her for her past gimmicks, but not once does it ever feel like a cynical trap to lure those who aren’t already Gaga fans into the cult. Follow-up record Chromatica’s release today will be seen as a return to form to the pop lovers in Gaga’s fanbase. While Joanne will be seen as a record to skip in her discography by many in the long run (perhaps unfairly given the pure intentions of the project), there’s no doubting that it was a necessary step in her development as an artist. Without Joanne, there’d be no A Star Is Born soundtrack and none of the clarity that Gaga has hinted inspired much of Chromatica. For anyone wishing to appreciate Lady Gaga’s vocal talent over anything else, Joanne may just hold up as the place to go. • GJ

Disclosure – Settle

The time when Disclosure seemed like the undisputed kings of UK house music feels like aeons ago now. When they broke out with Latch in 2012 and brought Sam Smith along with them (with that song being still one of the best things they’ve ever done), this felt like an act that could toe the line between the then-fledgling deep house boom and a more nimble, jittery side that was demonstrably their own thing. Ultimately they struggled to really follow up on that with Caracal in 2015 – and a new album later this year that seems to be doing its own thing entirely – but Settle still holds a special place within UK house as the sort of wildly accessible yet densely packed album that’s lasted on quality and ubiquity alone. Even with songs like When A Fire Starts To Burn and F For You that felt a fraction of the size of some of its biggest cuts, it’s amazing how they’ve managed to withstand the test of time, partly through some monstrously catchy melodic work, and partly through Guy and Howard Lawrence honing their production style to such a fine point throughout. There’s a reason why Latch or White Noise with AlunaGeorge became so huge, as they captured a very specific sound for the time while also putting their own spin on it. And when looking at Stimulation or You & Me or Confess To Me, they all hold up in the same vein. Admittedly Settle can suffer from running through the same idea again and again, and it can get it bit stale on a full listen when it’s as long as it is, but it’s still a solid, unique house album that holds up when picking and choosing the best cuts, and regardless of what Disclosure end up doing next, they’ll always have that under their belts. • LN

We Are The Ocean – Ark

Detractors of the crop of bands that made the scene so popular complained of material being safe and predictable, sometimes even cheesy for the sincerity woven into the material of such bands’ tracks. So it’s interesting with that in mind that a handful of those bands (like Kids In Glass Houses and recently Mallory Knox) met their maker after dropping albums that switched up their sound, We Are The Ocean being one of the most missed. Their final album Ark saw them slightly rough up their sound and delve into all different kinds of rock music to mostly satisfactory effect. Songs like Good For You with its cocksure swagger, furiously paced rager I Wanna Be and even Holy Fire, which is the made-for-stadiums upgrade of We Are The Ocean’s heart-on-sleeve soarers, hit all the right notes with everything carried by singer Liam Cromby, even now considered one of the most underrated singers in the 2010s Britrock scene. While it’s clear that most of these tracks are the product of the four-piece listening to more Queens Of The Stone Age than Biffy Clyro and openly trying to elevate their sound, it does only feel like a baby step in the right direction, with the only indicator of both the destination We Are The Ocean eventually wanted to end up at and the potential they had to do so being the stunning title track of Ark. Ark is the most expansive song We Are The Ocean ever put out, flirting with drama, playing with dynamics and cinematic instrumentation to a monumental degree. It remains the moment in their career that feels the most truly exciting and bursting with potential (even more than when they were making a name for themselves as a post-hardcore outfit), which in retrospect makes their subsequent breakup before they could fully push towards making something completely in this realm all the more gutting. While Britrock staple Go Now and Live is still We Are The Ocean’s most easy to love and consistent record, Ark hints at an evolution that we’ll never see the end result of – one that could have helped transform opinions of the genre they made their name in. • GJ

Future – High Off Life

How is is that one of modern hip-hop’s premier artists can be so consistently devoid of ideas? It was bound to happen given that this is Future’s fifty-billionth project trying to string the same collection of trap masturbation across an absolutely exorbitant runtime, but surely there must be some self-awareness in there that, yes, he can do something else for a change. In any case, High Off Life continues to push that notion back into the recesses of its creator’s mind, as Future once again delivers what might as well be a carbon copy of the last however-many albums and mixtapes he’s released. It’s not like this is all bad either – Solitares isn’t bad, and Youngboy Never Broke Again does some decent work on Trillionaire – but this forgettable mush of the highest order, not helped by the fact that Future as an artist continues to be so limited in his AutoTuned blathering that gets tremendously boring tremendously fast. There’s really not much else to say that can’t be said about any number of Future projects – it fits the exact mould that’s always asked for of a Future project, and when this is forgotten in about a week’s time (sans the Drake collaboration that’ll be the solitary ember that remains alight), not one single person will care. Also the fact that there’s a song on here called Harlem Shake in 2020 is more than enough of a reason by itself to toss this one to the roadside. • LN

RuPaul – American

While some people are using the extra free time that comes with lockdown to improve their cooking skills or learn a new language, some of us are watching every series of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Netflix for the millionth time. It’s become a true cultural phenomenon and a source of enlightenment when it comes to gay culture and the issues both within and faced by the LGBTQ+ community, and the soundtrack, made up of original songs by self-proclaimed ‘marketing genius’ RuPaul, is one of the most vital aspects of the whole show. Listening to an album like American by itself without the show as a visual and contextual aid, it’s hard to find much actual meaning to the songs other than soundtracking fierce model struts (which will happen on a street rather than a runway for most of those listening). More often than not the ‘rumixes’ of songs like Kitty Girl and the title track featuring Drag Race finalists (which aren’t included on this record) are much more enjoyable listens. That said, there’s a mostly competent handle of EDM present on American (Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve & Talent is especially satisfying, as is Kummerspeck’s production on modern disco track Mighty Love), while RuPaul himself is a commanding focal point, particularly with his rapping on Call Me Mother. Is it the important album the title track tries so hard to convince us it is? Not at all, but these songs, like the show they exist thanks to, are mostly a great time if you don’t take it them too seriously, providing escapism that is definitely needed in times like these. • GJ

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

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