The Soundboard Stereo – October 2020

Release season is well and truly underway now, the only thing that seems to be back to normal within the music industry right now. On the metric, 2020 hasn’t quite been as flooded as normal, but the big names have been out in force, and there’s still plenty more to come in the coming weeks and months. Even if total normality doesn’t seem to be on the horizon just yet, it’s good to see the machine keep rolling and pushing through all the same. With that in mind then (and after a brief hiatus last month), here’s what’s been on The Soundboard Stereo throughout October…

The Ting Tings
We Started Nothing

Fickleness might be part and parcel of the pop industry’s inner workings, but it’s fascinating just how quickly an uber-popular act can completely drop out of the public consciousness with no fanfare whatsoever. Having a record as inescapable as We Started Nothing was in 2008 usually sets a precedent for at least some degree of media attention for the rest of your career, yet The Ting Tings have kept a strangely low profile since. The duo have spoken about never really fitting in with their pop peers, being met with raised eyebrows and exasperated sighs from suits for wanting to do things with their own creative expression at the forefront, no matter how radio unfriendly or schedule-ruining their way of thinking may have been. Listening back to We Started Nothing now, it’s easy to see why it was so likeable to so many. Its melodies feel instantly familiar, the bratty edge ladled onto singer Katie White’s vocals’ (which are charmingly expressive and, at least on this record, the one real cohesive feature of The Ting Tings’ sound) makes for a casual pop listen that feels slightly more out of the box. That said though, you can practically hear the label’s interference in almost everything going on. Stomping mega-single That’s Not My Name serves as the definition of base-level feminist statements, particularly now when discussions surrounding the topic are often much more sophisticated and witty – while it’s understandable that more scathing commentary would probably never be allowed to be a debut single, it’s more than likely such a song would be ridiculed more than celebrated if it were released today. Not pushing things far enough is an issue that crops up a few times on We Started Nothing. Traffic Light’s Muzak undertones are a fun idea that don’t feel fully backed the way Fruit Machine’s surf-rock vibes are, the latter being a much more successful and memorable track as a result. Keep Your Head also has promise but relies almost solely on its chirpy keyboard motif on the back end of the track to keep it afloat next to more similar-sounding songs, while ironically the one song where The Ting Tings outstay their welcome is on the six-minute-long title track which feels monotonous after the first 30 seconds. We Started Nothing’s legacy in 2020 is like a sugar fix – it satisfies a particular craving but isn’t the most sustainable. • GJ

Faith No More
King For A Day… Fool For A Lifetime

There’s not a band that can even come close to Faith No More in terms of ambition. That’s been a strict constant for decades now; they were way ahead of their time on earlier albums in a blend of alt-metal, funk, punk and everything else, something that would define them as alternative staples through the ‘80s and ‘90s before flaming out as their indirect influence on nu-metal was picking up steam. Of course, they returned just as strong with 2015’s Sol Invictus, but there’s still something that remains so untouchable in terms of creativity in their initial run. Angel Dust still remains their definitive body of work, but King For A Day… Fool For A Lifetime feels like a band testing their boundaries in a scrappier, less rich way. It’s part of the reason why reception towards it was so mixed at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s an important part of Faith No More’s career all the same, particularly in defining them as a metal band. That’s always been a statement to be taken with a certain amount of liberty, but there’s no doubt that The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies and Digging The Grave cementing themselves among Faith No More’s biggest tracks does hold that notion rather firmly, and with the likes of Ricochet and King For A Day having such a clear lineage with the grunge that was around them in the early ‘90s, Faith No More’s vaunted versatility does shine through. Nowhere does that appear more than in the single Evidence, a left turn so left that it practically doubles back on itself, as an easy-listening jazz-funk track that shows Mike Patton in full-on crooner mode which would be repurposed to varying extents on the Latin-flavoured Caralho Voader and the softer Take This Bottle. Compared to their other material and how all of this lands, it’s easy to tell that King For A Day… isn’t Faith No More firing on all cylinders (the general absence of keyboardist Roddy Bottum from recording sessions effectively cements that), but as a relic of one of the most fascinating and unclassifiable bands to ever exist, this is still a really worthwhile listen. Even as a less-celebrated entry within their catalogue, a revisit reveals a lot to like and appreciate here, to the point where its importance begins to show arguably more now than ever. • LN

John Mayer
Battle Studies

Considering his celebrity lothario status and ability to make a joke out of himself (with dancing pandas in his music videos or through his circa-2017 stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed), a lot of John Mayer’s music feels largely devoid of any real character of his. That’s not to say his songs and lyrics aren’t likeable or enjoyable – he’s born to play the part of pensive, eloquent love guru, always bringing a class and elegance to his writing even though parts of his public persona hint at the exact opposite – but the fun he brings to extra-curricular interviews and . Press for his most recent album The Search For Everything saw a Mayer at peace with his public image, rights and wrongs, but back in 2009, record Battle Studies marked a high in his career. It earned Grammy nominations and decently-charting singles but also saw a progression in sound continuing on. Previous record Continuum was decidedly less twee than Mayer’s Your Body Is A Wonderland-esque material of old, and Battle Studies feels like a natural progression of that sound evolution – sharpening it enough to appease both those into rock and blues as well as pop fans. The Taylor Swift-featuring Half Of My Heart and U2-dripping Heartbreak Warfare are easy ins for casual enthusiasts or radio listeners, but digging further into the tracklist it’s obvious how integral bands of the 70s and 80s were in inspiring Battle Studies. Nods to Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and the aforementioned U2 make for songs that perhaps aren’t as instant as Mayer’s earlier material but certainly have more meat on the bone, especially tied in with his unflappable abilities as a musician. Whether it’s through the tiny punctuating licks on Half Of My Heart or when there’s a full-on spotlight on his guitar like on Crossroads, Mayer’s own reworking of Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues, there’s technical prowess to appreciate if nothing else. All in all, there are some really charming tracks on Battle Studies, like War Of My Life, whose top-down-cruising vibes instantly feel like home or Assassin, which marries an expertly-crafted musical background with Mayer’s trusted narrative voice. While there’s nothing remotely dangerous-sounding or boundary-pushing when comparing John Mayer’s music to the wider scheme of things, a song of his always manages to feel safe, and the Battle Studies era is one of the ones that best encompasses his strengths. • GJ

The Gaslight Anthem

Being without The Gaslight Anthem really hammers home how special of a band they could be. It wasn’t all the time, particularly towards the end with Get Hurt, but their run of albums in the middle of their career still remains untouchable as far as heartfelt, literate and achingly soulful rock music goes. Among that though, it feels as though Handwritten goes relatively unappreciated, and it can be difficult to see why. It hits just as hard, particularly ramming out of the gate with “45”, but the likes of the title track and Biloxi Parish ooze with the heartland sensibility that they’ve always been so excellent and cultivating, and National Anthem as a closer might just be one of their best ever songs for how elegant and beautifully written it is while digging deep into the band’s well of Americana to staggering effect. The whole album feels like a purposeful lack of innovation, be that compared to the band’s own material or their influences, but that only works to their advantage in how powerful the sense of familiarity and nostalgia is within The Gaslight Anthem’s work. Their music has always conjured up images of the classic, timeless America, and it’s no different with Handwritten, especially in Brian Fallon’s burr that constant exudes warmth and approachability. Like a lot of The Gaslight Anthem’s work, it’s a difficult album to really criticise, mostly because each element feels so fine-tuned and in the correct place that it comes across as the exact end product that the band had planned from the beginning. That in itself is a great thing, and it lets this album hold up ridiculously well because of it. • LN

Ellie Goulding

Marmite voice aside, Ellie Goulding has a real hold on the UK pop charts. Peppering her usual releases with mum-fodder piano covers that inexplicably propel themselves to number one (see random cover of Joni Mitchell’s River doing just that at Christmas in 2018) keeps her name on everyone’s lips even if her more creative (and later, anonymous) pop albums don’t perform as well as expected. Goulding’s first two records showed a real artistic voice and a growing competency with pop stardom that felt exciting to watch play out in real time. Sophomore album Halcyon is the closest thing Goulding has to an opus, completely making the then-reemerging synthpop craze her own while further honing the unique point of view she showed on debut record Lights. While Lights’ drama was arguably more in its lyrics than its folk-meets-pop musical backdrop, Halcyon weaves it into the whole package, and straight from stage-setting opener Don’t Say A Word, it’s clear these songs were made to fill the most cavernous of rooms. The remnants of folk left over from Lights makes for an interesting almost tribal-influenced sound on songs like My Blood and Only You, though the real highlights of the record come when Goulding gets flashier with the synthpop side of things. Figure 8 and Anything Can Happen aren’t just highlights of Halcyon but of her discography in general, the former’s imposing bass drops providing just the right amount of weight to complement the singer’s breathy vocals, while the latter is a stunning slice of modern feelgood pop. Hanging On is another perfect environment for Goulding to thrive in, with the captivating harp motif melding with thundering wub crashes, creating a salute to the dubstep of its time that even close to a decade on doesn’t feel dated. The back end of Halcyon is much more ballad-heavy than the front, but there’s still a unique identity to I Know You Care and Explosions that her later releases lose as they veer more towards pop-centric sounds. More recently Ellie Goulding has become more of an artist to cherry-pick standout songs from rather than appreciate their complete bodies of work, but Halcyon is still the place to go to get a taste of her most authentic self as an artist. • GJ

Lower Than Atlantis
Lower Than Atlantis

While at this point in their career Lower Than Atlantis were a far cry from the volatile, Gallows-esque hardcore of their earliest work, their self-titled album still came as a bit of a surprise. This was a clear and present shift into full-blown pop-rock, a decision which, looking back on it, could have been the start of their ultimate downfall. In terms of pop-rock, they were definitely good at it, with Mike Duce’s lyrics not being entirely lost of their wit and intelligence in the move, and tracks like Ain’t No Friend and Words Don’t Come So Easily making good use of it, but it’s also easy to see how some of their stronger elements could have been downplayed. Here We Go has the thunderous guitars that perfectly soundtrack Duce’s unkempt bellow of a voice, but the focus on big, radio-ready hooks over anything can definitely be spotted among it all, as is the case with English Kids In America and Emily. They’re well-written, sure, but they’re also aiming very broadly, and that’s something that Lower Than Atlantis had always been good at avoiding. There’s was distinct specificity and details in their songs, and this self-titled album could sometimes have that missing to its detriment, and would continue to suffer from that with its predecessor Safe In Sound. Beyond that though, the band’s pop-rock turn ultimately pushed them further than ever before, and the bolt-clamped hooks on so many of these songs really do speak for themselves. It’s a good easy album above anything else nowadays, something that was previously never Lower Than Atlantis’ forte, but they could still pull it off reasonably well regardless. • LN

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

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