The Soundboard Stereo – July 2020

Under normal circumstances, it would typically be the midst of festival season about now, meaning that the major release schedule would typically dry up, save for a handful of albums maybe capitalising on the overall quiet. Obviously that isn’t the case now though, given that the majority of releases are approaching their rescheduled delays, and there’s still a healthy influx of new ones. It also means there’s a lot more to cover (something our new Review Round-Up series helps with immensely), but outside of all of that, here’s what’s been on The Soundboard Stereo throughout July…

The Academy Is… – Fast Times At Barrington High

Delving into sun-kissed pop rock albums of old over a decade after they were released can sometimes feel like a lost cause. Not only are such records now often only seen as nostalgia-seeped gateways to memories of Warped Tour and embarrassing teenage fashion sense, but the zeitgeist has firmly moved on to giving artists who are breaking new ground in whatever way the spotlight, not something that fits with the samey American 2000s pop rock scene. The records that hold some kind of legacy to this day are those that can be considered solid bodies of work (All Time Low’s So Wrong It’s Right or Yellowcard’s Ocean Avenue spring to mind) instead of being filler-seeped showcases for a handful of good singles. Oft-forgotten The Academy Is… never really reached such levels of untouchable quality on any of their records, but they came closest on 2008 record Fast Times At Barrington High. After a move to emo on the previous year’s Santi that didn’t quite pay off, Fast Times… is a reversion back to pop rock, but a better execution of such songwriting than they’d ever pulled off before. Lead single About A Girl is not just the best song of The Academy Is…’ career, but one of the most underrated singles to come from the 2000s pop-rock era, almost never finding its way onto superlative lists despite being more than deserving of such recognition. The tracks on this record show William Beckett’s ear for melody on songs like Paper Chase or the mid-tempo The Test where such skills really shine. It’s not a perfect record – not every track shines with the youthful exuberance of its highest peaks, but looking back, pop rock albums that do reach that level of consistency are much harder to find. In any case, if you’re looking for a musical pep talk seeped in nostalgia to get you through 2020’s unorthodox summer, you could do much worse than Fast Times At Barrington High. • GJ


Various Artists – Hamilton

Everyone knows what Hamilton is, and just as many know of its reputation. It’s the biggest musical around right now, drenched in acclaim and sought after by theatre nerds and novices alike, and centred around the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton set to a hip-hop soundtrack that’s far more contemporary than its setting might let on. But again, everyone knows that; Hamilton is a phenomenon that’s almost like anything else before it or since, and it’s no wonder that the soundtrack in isolation has attracted its own cabal of zealots of a similar magnitude. For posterity’s sake, this writer has never actually seen Hamilton performed live (he’s watched it on Disney+ but that’s about it), but even from that secondhand exposure to the performance aspect of it, it goes without saying that this works better with the stage and cast as an accompaniment. The whole thing seems more energetic and bombastic, and the certain quirks and expressiveness that each performer brings to their respective roles is lost through a purely audial medium. That being said, if there was ever a musical that was going to thrive in the modern day, it would be Hamilton on the inherent strength of the music itself; Lin-Manuel Miranda is a fantastic writer as it is, and feeding that through the wordplay and storytelling that’s abundant on Alexander Hamilton and My Shot makes for a genuinely excellent listen, especially backed by music that keeps its musical theatre origins in view and doesn’t sideline them too greatly within its hip-hop and R&B exection. It’s only emphasised by how excellent the performers are; there’s such a remarkably tight chemistry between Miranda and Daveed Diggs on both Cabinet Battle tracks that has so much wit and humour baked into nearly every line, and even if there’s a bit of an overperformance from Leslie Odom Jr. at some points (there’s a take that’ll go down well), it’s hard to deny that The Room Where It Happens is an earworm of the highest calibre. But where Hamilton unexpectedly shines is when it strips down the flash and grandeur for just one or two voices to take centre stage; it’s what makes the double hit of Helpless and Satisfied an absolutely amazing couple of songs, and Dear Theodosia and especially It’s Quiet Uptown have a reverence that’s virtually unparalleled here. Again, the lack of a visual accompaniment dulls the sheen ever so slightly, but not enough to matter; Hamilton is still a joy to experience, be that to watch or to listen to, and the fact it can stretch comfortably over two hours and hold the attention as much as it does is a testament to how good this is. • LN


Fireworks – Gospel

They’ve since returned with ethereal new song Demitasse and news of a record coming this year (should the write-off that is 2020 not delay anything), so this first half of the year has been the perfect time to revisit the Detroit band’s discography so far. There’s a case to be made for any one of their three albums to be their best, but there’s something about sophomore effort Gospel that glistens a bit more than their other two full-length releases. Gospel is half an hour of pop-punk optimism, without a doubt the most sugary of Fireworks’ records so far. Earnestness is the name of the game with this record, pushing optimism above all else but never coming off as sanctimonious, always relatable and conversational. These songs are simple but the emotions behind them aren’t just one-dimensional word vomit, a trap many of their pop punk peers of this time certainly fell into – there’s always a nuance of acknowledging your wrongs or just waking up on the wrong side of the bed that morning sold in an infectious, effortless package. It’s the perfect pop punk album for 2020. It’s easy to see why one might not get on with David Mackinder’s vocals – when they’re not given the appropriate environment to thrive in (namely acoustic ballad I Am The Challenger, the one song without complementing muscle on the album) their more nasally qualities are much more noticeable and grating, but what he does best is sell what he’s singing with everything he’s got. We’re Still Pioneers manages to make a defeatist state of mind sound like the most fun since, well, anything before lockdown, while I Was Born In The Dark is a two-minutes-twenty cathartic anthem. The adrenaline rush of the 90-miles-an-hour first two verses transitions seamlessly into a triumphant ease-down of a chorus, one that sees them slot nicely in with peers Man Overboard and Transit when it comes to rowdy melodies designed to scream out loud surrounded by friends with fists in the air. Definitely a record to blast in more wistful moments about better times. • GJ


Pop Smoke – Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon

It’s a real shame that Pop Smoke’s debut album proper is a posthumous album, not only because of the circumstances of his murder that saw him killed at only 20 years old, but because of the industry vultures around him that, if other posthumous releases from modern hip-hop artists have taught us anything, won’t hesitate to strip-mine whatever shred of material they can get their talons on to cobble together a feature or another release. It seems to be happening even now given that Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon was affixed with another full album’s worth of content only a week after its initial release, but if only to play devil’s advocate for a moment, you can kind of see the intention. In the realms of charting hip-hop, Pop Smoke was an exciting presence, largely steering away from trap and paying more mind to both New York and UK drill, filled out by a sense of atmosphere and his bulldog snarl of a voice that owed more to his de facto mentor 50 Cent than any of the modern wave. That revitalising presence can even be felt here; the backlash to the woeful original cover art already earmarked a fanbase not willing to just take anything lying down, and that seems to be taken onboard by how surprisingly good this is. It’s still a bit too long and including Dior for the third project in a row feels excessive, but on the whole, this feels like the direction Pop Smoke would’ve taken his music, drawing from spacier, darker sounds within hip-hop and R&B without mitigating the banger potential. That comes through in the warping guitars of The Woo and the tremulous gothic swell of Got In On Me, while the likes of Gangstas and West Coast Shit fall into groovier, almost pop-leaning progressions. There’s an intriguing amount of variety here, and Pop Smoke’s gruff voice has a surprising malleability around them; the growls on Dior have become synonymous in their own right, but the edgier, nervier delivery on 44 Bulldog is just as natural of an extrapolation as more tender crooning like on Enjoy Yourself. It all adds up to a lot more than what most artists in Pop Smoke’s vein are willing to deliver, and it does beg the question of how far he could’ve taken this if given the opportunity. That’s a question that won’t be answered to any satisfying degree, but an album like this still offers a great deal more than what ventures like this often wind up with. • LN


Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

Two years ago, Janelle Monáe put out the album of her career so far. There are few records that spring to mind that encompass everything about an artist – musically, lyrically and visually – like Dirty Computer does Monáe. The black and queer parts of her identity are central to the idea of Dirty Computer (made even more clear with the accompanying film, or “emotion picture”, to the album), and her choice to hop among genres (Prince-inspired funk on Make Me Feel, sugary pop on Pynk, lulling R&B with Don’t Judge Me) makes for one of the most creative and assured records heard in pop-ish circles in recent memory. The verses of first song proper Crazy, Classic, Life feel untouchably epic. There’s an instant sense of solidarity, allusions to a fun-loving gang of friends living their absolute best lives make anyone listening want to grab Janelle’s hand and run head-first into their next adventure whether they’re constantly surrounded by friends and wild antics or a cast-out loner desperate to take part. Everyone starts on the same playing field – something clearly important to the singer judging by her lyrics. Not only does Dirty Computer bask in the joy of being ‘other’, in being unique, in being yourself, but it sticks two middle fingers up to those doing the oppressing through some of the most clever lyricism of the past decade and Monáe’s own presence – commanding yet gentle, unassailable yet vulnerable – to stellar effect. Django Jane remains a masterpiece in feminist songwriting; every single line is a jab in one way or another, be it reaffirming confidently where Monáe herself has come from personally or attacking, whether it be directly or indirectly, the systems and higher-ups she and countless others have been restricted by. I Got The Juice and Screwed are pure party songs which are still barbed at their core – the way you can feel these tracks differently depending on what you’re looking for from them but still never truly forget the whole picture is masterful. Dirty Computer is a true auteur album – every single aspect radiates everything Janelle Monáe stands for and represents in today’s society, while never being exclusionary or self-righteous. If the masses weren’t already salivating over the potential of whatever Monáe’s next musical move may be, then Dirty Computer has surely lit a spark that hopefully droves of people will watch burst into flame when she chooses to make it so. • GJ


Blues Traveler – Four

At no other point could Blues Traveler have risen to prominence besides the ‘90s. At a time when either anyone could be a rockstar or any rockstar could be a no one, you’d get a band like Blues Traveler, the sort of weird curio that no one would ever pay attention to beyond one or two songs, and yet who’d leave an unshakably lasting impression for years after. A lot of that impression is down to how recognisable frontman John Popper is – a heavy-set fella in his Blues Brothers fedora with some frankly insane harmonica skills – and the planetary convergence that so often is the cause of ‘90s some-hit wonders seemed to emerge from among that on Four, spawning the band’s only two significant hits in Run-Around and Hook. Honestly, they’re the two prime assets that this album has; looking past them, it’s not an awful body of work, but is has the shaggy jam-band qualities and unjustified length that a lot of acts like go a bit too far with, but it’s worth highlighting to show how unpredictable ‘90s rock could be, especially when it charted. Run-Around has the squealing harmonica and tippy-tappy, Hootie And The Blowfish guitars before breaking into a weapon’s-grade power-pop chorus, while Hook starts off a bit slow and meandering before coming out of nowhere with Popper’s babbling bridge that probably doesn’t make all that much sense but is still really fun to listen to. That’s another reason why bands like Blues Traveler don’t come around anymore; you’d never get a band willing to bet their legacy on something as commercially unviable as a harmonica solo or twisted word-salad breakdown, but that’s a hidden beauty of Blues Traveler that’s withheld in these two songs. There’s no real critical re-evaluation of Blues Traveler on the horizon (and having listened to Four for the first time in some time, there doesn’t really need to), but the coterie of ‘90s relics will always have them there, sitting pretty and letting that harmonica sing. • LN


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

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