The Soundboard Stereo – August 2020

We’re heading to what would normally be the end of festival season and into the months where the nonstop torrent of new releases is at its most noticeable, and if nothing else, it’ll be nice to have that as some barometer of normality. That’s not to say the summer has been slow – between revised release dates and what feels like an increased number of artists looking to plug in calendar gaps, it’s been a lot busier than usual – but the sheer volume of big-name releases on the horizon once again stands as an unshakable constant within the music industry, regardless of what’s going on in the rest of the world. So before all of that finally hits, here’s what’s been on The Soundboard Stereo in August…

Taylor Swift

The unwritten rule of the big surprise album in pop is to go headlong into the unexpected. That sounds almost stupidly obvious, but when considering how the ones that always seem to be remembered the most have their artists going against the grain and doing something outside of their comfort zone, it’s worth noting to make these sorts of rollouts impactful. With Taylor Swift’s folklore then, not only is it coming not even a year after her already-acclaimed Lover, but going for brooding, stripped-back indie-folk and recruiting The National’s Aaron Dessner to produce feels less like a left turn and more like the leap into the indie scene that was always going to happen, but not this soon. And honestly, there’s such an aptitude for this sort of music that really does come as a surprise; Swift has always been a more talented artist than many give her credit for, but there’s a brooding ache that reverberates through the icy, silent forest of folklore’s atmosphere that’s worlds away from almost everything she’s done before. The only thing that really even comes close is Safe & Sound, her collaboration with The Civil Wars for The Hunger Games soundtrack in 2011, and when that sort of deep cut has been exhumed and extrapolated into a full album, there’s a thick coating of ‘passion project’ across every inch of it. Hell, when the best moment is a shuddering duet with Bon Iver that was designed to be anything other than a radio darling, that says a lot, and the expansive, elegant world of folklore sees the doors open for Swift’s entry into the pantheon of all-time greats that, realistically, she should’ve been in for a while now. It’s easily her best written album to date, and while there’s not quite the equal level of hook-craft that 1989 had, there’s a certain amount of triumph that’s endemic to an album like this. It’s a misty, understated, deeply dense album from one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, and if that doesn’t sound at least a bit intriguing, then nothing will. • LN

Myths Of The Near Future

The time of media buzz making or breaking a bright-eyed new band’s career feels alien now, but it’s fascinating to look back at where inescapable critical darlings of the past are now. Klaxons lived out every indie band’s dream in their ten-year career, but their every waking moment was plagued by a label the press thrust upon them. Critics branded the three-piece the commanders of New Rave, which feels like a very important-sounding name for just adding keyboards and sampling to indie punk and playing to crowds wielding glowsticks. Their debut record Myths Of The Near Future was heralded as the record that would change indie music forever (aren’t they all?) and earning critical acclaim left, right and centre, even winning the 2007 Mercury Prize over Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black and Arctic Monkeys’ Favourite Worst Nightmare. Now, it’s crazy to see how big a deal Myths Of The Near Future was for genre-clashing, especially considering Enter Shikari released Take To The Skies just a month prior (isn’t it funny how slightly aggressive vocals get you left out of the conversation completely?). Yes, there’s much more ground covered on this record than many of Klaxons’ peers would ever dream of going near – the choral singing punctuating Isle Of Her springs to mind immediately – but much of the punkier material feels like things the rock scene had been doing for a long time at this point. It’s easy to imagine a furious crowd reaction to Totem On The Timeline or Atlantis To Interzone, the latter being an extremely Shikari-sounding track, if slightly watered down. The most memorable tracks on this album are at the other end of the spectrum, the ones with easy hooks to dig into, like the earworm vocalisations of Golden Skans or It’s Not Over Yet, a cover of Grace’s Eurodance smash. These are easily the most orthodox tracks of the bunch, and while it feels like a waste when there’s more meat to many other songs (the production on Golden Skans pops considerably less compared to its neighbouring tracks), it feels more in the lane of the type of scene Klaxons were in and harder to compare to other bands doing the same thing but better. Myths Of The Near Future was surely groundbreaking in 2007 to someone whose whole world was indie, but today with much more blurry genre boundaries, it doesn’t really hold up as much. • GJ

Juice WRLD
Legends Never Die

Between Pop Smoke’s debut and this, it feels like there’s been a much greater onus placed on posthumous releases to really mark the intentions of the artist when they were still alive, rather than serve as some extraneous wheel-grease for the labels to keep siphoning off. It makes sense – in an age where the proximity between fans and artists have diminished so greatly, it’s natural for the connection between the two to be even more tightly knit – and for Juice WRLD, an artist whose rise within emo-trap was almost unprecedented in how meteoric it was, there’s a legacy that he’s left behind that many will undoubtedly cherish. Thus, Legends Never Die has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and there’s definitely a certain amount of effort gone into that to preserve and recontexualise the meaning of Juice WRLD’s music in the wake of his death. For an artist who’d become known for his unfiltered, depressive content that resonated so heavily with an audience that was just as young and just as uncertain as him, there’s a certain power that comes from tracks like Fighting Demons and Wishing Well, in a vacuum not being greatly different from anything else Juice WRLD might have released, but as an epilogue for an artist taken far too early, there’s a sting there that’s palpable. There’s honesty that holds the album together, but it also succeeds as an effort from a mainstream artist who, at the time, was riding the height of his success in what feels like a natural continuation of that. The fat pop-punk guitars and Marshmello’s quaking bass on Come & Go feels like an avenue that would’ve been taken eventually, as does the elegiac serenity of Life’s A Mess that places Halsey as an ideal partner in cathartic wallowing. It’s not exactly a perfect album for those same reasons, namely because Juice WRLD could still struggle to find his niche within this sound sometimes and that also remains encapsulated here, but this feels like an important coda to the career of an artist who truly could’ve been extraordinary. Unlike a lot of posthumous albums, it actually succeeds in preserving the memory of its subject with real grace and dignity. • LN

Mallory Knox

They were never the flashiest of their Britrock peers, but there’s an always an air of assurance propping up a Mallory Knox record. The Pilot EP and Signals were strong, if naive bodies of work by promising upstarts, Wired showed a band whose ambitions were arguably wider than the genre that housed them allowed, and even their doomed self-titled final record (released after backbone vocalist Mikey Chapman left their ranks) radiated a resilience and determination even if the material waned significantly as a four-piece. Second album Asymmetry is the crown jewel of Mallory Knox’s discography, though. Some of the best songs of their career are on this record – Ghost In The Mirror still sits pretty as their strongest lead single, the gorgeous Getaway and closer Dare You stand out massively and Dying To Survive packs a punch with its driving bassline and humungous chorus – but Asymmetry also sits in a sweet spot where Mallory Knox knew their sound well enough to devote time to assigning personality to their songs instead of focusing on establishing themselves. This album feels almost moody beneath the trademark earnest Britrock and uncanny abilty to make you feel things, but a new level of admirable craftsmanship is also present. Balancing the moods of Mikey Chapman’s soaring belts and Sam Douglas’ more mellow vocals gave the quintet a knowledge of handling duality earlier in their career, but the emotional highs and lows both on Asymmetry as a whole and on individual songs (particularly seven-minute opus She Took Him To The Lake which still feels ridiculously ambitious for Britrock and could absolutely have been mishandled in the wrong hands) show just how on the pulse they were when it came to delivering not only great music that could have filled massive venues, but sentimental impact. Mallory Knox’s career might have fizzled out disappointingly prematurely for the amount of talent they had, but albums like these stand as a permanent reminder of the best part of Britrock. • GJ

This Wild Life

It was a weird time in 2014 when Clouded was released and This Wild Life were tipped to be new scene superstars. It never felt like a tremendously flexible album in almost exclusively pillowy acoustic ballads that could slip easily enough into emo, and the fact that the duo never truly hit the heights they were touted to reach speaks volumes about the limitations on offer here. Honestly, ‘limited’ is probably the best word to describe Clouded; it’s pleasant enough and never actively becomes annoying to listen to, but apart from the fuller pop-country swoon of the closer 405, This Wild Life don’t seem to expand upon their skill set all that much. These aren’t complex songs as much as they thrive on the air of introspection and Kevin Jordan’s willowy voice, and looking towards that with a more critical mind, there’s a certain amount of juvenility to that that’s in line with a lot of the MySpace emo-pop singer-songwriters that (by all rights) should’ve gone extinct a long time ago. At least songs like Over It and History have enough emotional clarity to work for what they are, but they’re still operating on a fine line that’s really hard to praise too heartily. There isn’t a great deal within This Wild Life’s formula that allows for moments of greater experimentation, and for an album that’s so deeply ingrained with appealing to the big, often immature emotions of its listener base, the fact that the duo know that they can get away with that has only become more blatant upon revisiting. It’s not exactly a bad album and for the limited purposes it’s designed to serve, it does that fine enough, but there’s a reason that This Wild Life aren’t exactly household names, and that shouldn’t be difficult to parse out. • LN

Katy Perry
Teenage Dream

“Feel old yet?” is something social media loves to ask us, and for those born in the later half of the 90s, those rapidly-aging things are quickly becoming artifacts that accompanied us through our teenage years rather than our childhoods. Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream turned 10 at the end of this month, and for pop fans (or anyone who switched on the radio) in 2010 this record was hard to get away from. Perry represents a type of pop artist that doesn’t need to make a consistently good record to break records and worm her way into everything (even some songs from her panned-pretty-much-everywhere record Witness were inescapable), and even without prior knowledge of such a fact, it’s obvious which songs are the singles when listening to Teenage Dream. The opening run of songs perfectly encapsulate the type of pop Perry is known for making – optimistic and emotional anthems, yet also incredibly campy bubblegum joy. The former are universally relatable like The One That Got Away and timeless title track, songs that still to this day encapsulate the rush of young love and heartbreak no matter the age of the listener, while California Gurls, Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) crank the fun dial all the way up and will never leave your brain. Like many chart-focused records, territory aside from the well-known draws to the album is murky. The ridiculous in the best way possible Peacock is the best song about wanting to see someone’s nether regions possibly ever, while Hummingbird Heartbeat fits in nicely to Perry’s relatable love song canon with its wide-eyed lyrics and gloriously 80s instrumental. She tries on some guises that land considerably less well, though. Circle The Drain and Who Am I Living For? are attempts to let out some angst towards an addict ex-boyfriend and her religious upbringing that call to be respected as choices rather than loved as great songs, while Pearl meanders through a hollow empowerment message that has none of the fun that Perry uses just minutes earlier to make Firework so great. Teenage Dream might not be the flawless body of work some rose-tinted teens might remember it to be, but as with much her career, it has more than enough sugar-rush moments to truly demonstrate Katy Perry’s uber-fun brand of pop. • GJ

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

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