The Soundboard Stereo – November 2020

The end of another year is on the horizon, albeit one that’s been a lot more – to put it mildly – unconventional than others. That’s been reflected in a lot of the music that’s been released too, where it’s been scattered and sporadic, seemingly dropping on the fly and leaving barely a trace even a few weeks later. We’ll be elaborating on that in our year-end lists next month, but there’s been a lot about 2020 that’s worth exploring in relation to where music distribution is going, and how that’s ultimately affecting the staying power of the music being release. Ultimately that’s a bigger topic than can be discussed in full now (though maybe it’s something for next year…), but away from any of that, here’s what we’ve been listening to in November in 2020’s final edition of The Soundboard Stereo…

Van Halen

Like many of their era, Van Halen are a band that hardly need any sort of introduction, but it’s honestly surprising that they’ve stuck around to the extent that they have. Obviously a factor in that is that they’ve still been around until very recently – a decision spurred on by the tragic passing of Eddie Van Halen in October – but in general, Van Halen’s music from their golden era has held up better than a lot of other hair-metal bands, generally because they had a knack for a pop sensibility that wasn’t entirely dictated by how sleazy they could be. Of course, that wasn’t entirely off the table, but an album like 1984 occupies the same classic rock bracket as something like Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, where the mainstream success it attained felt baked in rather than as a result of a movement around them. It certainly helps that 1984 had basically the hits for Van Halen – everyone on the planet knows Jump, and Hot For Teacher is the sort of delirious song that has them playing with hair-metal tropes while putting their own playful, pop-centric spin on it, and Panama is just rock royalty through and through at this point. It helps immensely that the technical quality was there, in Eddie’s prodigious guitar work that, for lack of a better term, legitimised Van Halen as a band among so many of their contemporaries, and David Lee Roth’s vocals which had the character and bravado that offered a quirkier, kookier edge, but never so much that it became distracting. Truly, 1984 is the ideal distillation of what pop-metal like this could’ve been, where neither side was marginalised in favour of the other, and both could play alongside each other to bring out the best elements. This is a pretty short album too, which definitely works to its advantage; it’s unbelievably tight with very little filler, just another thumbs up for a band who, at this stage, really did feel like something special. That wasn’t to last, of course, but the memories of Van Halen as a great band really are worth revisiting, especially when they can be as excellent as 1984 still is. • LN

All Time Low
Dirty Work

This year saw All Time Low seemingly come out on the other side of a career slump, returning to more pop-punk form instead of the terrible throwaway pop decisions that plagued 2017’s Last Young Renegade. But Last Young Renegade wasn’t the first record a number of All Time Low fans would come to disown or at least look back on less favourably; 2011’s Dirty Work’s felt like a misstep in plenty of ways for some. And while the benefit of hindsight makes it hard to justify putting the record at the very bottom of the pile instead of Last Young Renegade, their shaky first jump into major label territory was all over this record, certainly the most pop-edged of their career thus far. Certain tracks haven’t aged well at all due to misjudged experimentation (take the ska influences on That Girl or the uber-processed string and Spanish guitar intros to No Idea and Return The Favor respectively). The average decisions accompany the dumbfounding in the middle of the record, wading through the filler and forgettable more of an effort than putting up with the cringeworthy. Your opinions on such choices depend on how much of the controversial aspects offered here you personally can take. Fans of both All Time Low and pop might not flinch at No Idea’s saccharine balladry and overproduction, while those who can appreciate tongues firmly in cheeks will be able to appreciate the Kesha-referencing party anthem I Feel Like Dancin’. That said, some of All Time Low’s most universally loved and objective best songs call this record home, and it’s no coincidence that these songs are the ones that take most from the band’s previous pop-punk sound. Time-Bomb is still a live staple and Do You Want Me (Dead?) must be one of both the band’s best deep cuts and album openers of their career. The most no-frills tracks fare best by far with Dirty Work’s production, but they also provide evidence for a truth many All Time Low listeners have known for a while about the band; sticking to what they do best – crafting big, catchy pop-punk anthems – they’ll always come out on the other side of whatever other choices they make triumphantly. • GJ

Chris Stapleton

There’s a certain myth-making aspect to Chris Stapleton that it’s always been fun to indulge in, where he went from vaunted songwriter to topshelf artist in his own right, before a single award show performance launched him into the stratosphere as a country superstar permanently. It wouldn’t be wrong to attribute that to his now-famous performance of Tennessee Whiskey, but Traveller on its own serves as the sort of debut album that arguably could’ve made the strides on its own; the well-timed boost was certainly welcome, and it grew this album into becoming the best-selling country released on the 2010s in the US, but there’s an oozing talent that, while unrefined, is unmistakable. Stapleton’s voice is the obvious standout, the burly, bearded howl that finds itself more at home in indie-country and southern rock more than the mainstream, but given an obviously populist platform in songs like Parachute and Nobody To Blame that makes crossover appeal just make sense. Granted, the beauty of Traveller comes in its liability to hang back and let itself unfurl, making for a rather imposing hour-plus runtime, but also featuring songs like Fire Away and The Devil Named Music, overflowing with emotion that demands to be taken slowly and open out at its own pace. There’s a lot of tradition in the way that Stapleton makes music here, both in his style of writing and delivery, and in the aching, creaking sound that eschews modernity almost entirely, and does so to its credit. As well as Stapleton himself, this was also the moment that producer Dave Cobb was put on the map, who would go on to work on countless wonderful albums in the coming years, but the spotlight still rests on Stapleton primarily, even in this album’s rear view, the sort of artist that’s decidedly away from the norm of the industry, but who’s status as a household name hasn’t suffered for it. He’s just put out a new album that’s still doing fantastically well, but there’ll be few albums, even from him, that’ll represent the sort of singular, moment-in-time paradigm-shatter as Traveller did. • LN

Alanis Morissette
Jagged Little Pill

Telling songwriters to be themselves and write from the heart might be a cliche, but it’s one that’s proven to work. Writing an album that’s easy to relate to is a surefire way to ensure listeners will be somewhat interested in your work, but throwing yourself into those lyrics will up the authenticity and create an easy in for anyone hearing them. Jagged Little Pill was a cultural phenomenon in the 1990s, the universal yet still deeply personal nature of Alanis Morrisette’s lyrics cited as a major reason for both its commercial success and its resonance with individual fans worldwide. Not only was Morrisette making a sharp turn towards angry grunge from her more safe prior dance-pop career something that made the sheer force of this record such a surprise, but the fact that it came from a young woman and not a more seasoned male writer feels like a statement in itself. Morrisette was 19 years old during the recording of this album, feeling a lot of the emotions she’s singing about for the first time, and certainly more viscerally than she, or most other people as they grow, would later on in life. The rawness in all its turbulent glory, captured through tiny numbers of vocal takes with minimal tweaks, is much easier to live vicariously through. It’s exactly what makes You Oughta Know one of the best breakup songs ever written, its complex blend of seething rage and helpless misery at the hands of another person feeling like both a car crash you can’t tear your eyes away from and a fist in the air declaration of emotions everyone has had, whether they want to admit it or not. Songs like Not The Doctor and Right Through You where Morrisette cranks up the shitty-man-owning badassery are where she’s at her most fascinating, but she often takes on a wise beyond her years mentor role too. Questioning Catholicism, the pressure to meet expectations set by our families, mental illness and how women are treated in society are all brought up alongside the singer’s own personal journey, with more hopeful cuts Hand In My Pocket and You Learn rounding out the whole emotional experience of the record, never bringing down any level of quality. Speaking about the record retrospectively, Morrisette has said that Jagged Little Pill was her “unwittingly giving [herself] permission to be human”, and “human” is precisely what this whole album screams. This is a record that’s unashamed and embraces every facet of what the most earth-shattering situations bring out of us as people, and that’s what’s made it so timeless. • GJ

The Wombats
A Guide To Love, Loss & Desperation

Considering what The Wombats were on this debut, it’s kind of surprising that they stuck around. That’s not to disparage what still holds up as a solid album over a decade later, but …Love, Loss & Desperation feels very ingrained into what the British indie scene was in the 2000s, drenched in snark and post-punk energy for songs that would wind up as far too clever and reflexive for their own good. And yet, like so many others like them, The Wombats were able to channel that energy into hits that has withstood time’s weathering, in what can reasonably called their most essential release to date. It’s no surprise that they haven’t ever recovered the spark of Moving To New York or Let’s Dance To Joy Division, not only because those songs are definitively products of their time, but also because there’s a youthful glint and brashness that really only benefits a young band who think far more highly of themselves than might otherwise be true. Again, that’s a compliment on the whole; it’s what indie music in this era was built on, and The Wombats’ particular take on it felt like one of the more vital and vibrant interpretations of it, even now. There’s definitely a bit of fatigue that comes from an album this full-on in its intentions, but it’s definitely worth a revisit, especially given the relative drop-off that the band have undergone in recent years. They might have matured since, but there’s also the feeling that they aren’t quite as precocious as they were on this debut, the lightning-in-a-bottle moment that they’d struggle to replicate, but honestly, don’t really need to. • LN

La Dispute

Ask someone plugged into the modern hardcore scene who the biggest Marmite bands are and La Dispute are sure to be one of the first names out of their mouth. Vocalist Jordan Dreyer’s is a delivery often the butt of a yelping, tuneless parody, often lacking control and dimensions, the gut-wrenching lyrics he pens and brings to life an intrinsic part of the mockery. For those able to stomach it though, there’s definitely merit to be found in their records, both emotionally and musically. The main draw to La Dispute’s music is the lyrical storytelling that adorned many a Tumblr blog in 2013, with 2011’s Wildlife perhaps being the crown jewel of their discography in that regard. Dreyer has since spoken of his regret for telling the often dark stories of other people to a large audience on this record, and as understandable as such a thought is, the unflinching detail in which Wildlife describes a schizophrenic man stabbing his own father 27 times, a shooter committing suicide after mistakenly murdering a child instead of his rival, parents losing their seven-year-old to cancer, is beyond where a lot of bands and lyricists would ever dare to venture. The juxtaposition between such gritty tales and the words used to convey them that could be mistaken for just straight poetry if presented without music is a super admirable creative move, even more so when the record’s four-act structure influenced by author Vladimir Nabokov is also taken into account. But it’s the vocal delivery that causes issues when it comes to the whole package – it’s such an assault on the ears that it can be hard for the care that’s gone into crafting such stories and their intricacy to come through, as a result asking you to put more time into it than your average project. Where Wildlife without a doubt fares best are the songs when the instrumentation provides extra dimensions, somewhere for the listener to escape to when Dreyer’s contributions become a bit much. St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues and Harder Harmonies both do a particularly good job at keeping a captivating groove going and using dynamics  to create a journey to go along with their lyrics, such tracks certainly being preferable to starker ones like a Poem which don’t use the tools La Dispute have in their arsenal appropriately. If you’re not unconditionally on board with everything La Dispute, Wildlife is a record to avoid. But for anyone fine with more of an acquired taste, Wildlife remains a rewarding listen that scratches all kinds of emotional and mental itches. • GJ

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

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