The Soundboard Stereo – March 2021

It’s been a quiet month on the whole, but that ultimately feels needed. The buildup to a potential festival season this year has been simmering away in the background rather than hitting at full force like it did in February, and album releases, while not entirely slowed down, have felt a bit less impactful overall. With a few exceptions, there hasn’t really been a lot that’s deeply, profoundly stuck this month, though after the whirlwind that 2021 has already been, that’s been quite refreshing overall. The general tone of April ahead seems to be similar, with a few notable releases that could really shake things up, but a more measured cycle overall. Until then though, here’s what’s been on The Soundboard Stereo in March…

CHVRCHES
The Bones Of What You Believe

While synthpop is all too often the result of a career pivot for the artists making it, some acts just embody the genre, truly understanding all facets of every single thing they’re creating. Chvrches are one of those, something they’ve made obvious since the very beginning of their career. Debut record The Bones Of What You Believe could still run rings around some synthpop acts, the immaculate walls of sounds woven together from all kinds of electronics and vocal samples exhibit the pure musical skill of Iain Cook and Martin Doherty. These settings help set Chvrches apart from their peers (even their other albums) – this particular brand of synthpop is blaring and robust, the pixie-esque vocals from singer Lauren Mayberry a nice contrast yet still completely commanding and able to embody biting vengeance with just as much vigour as the more tender moments. Hefty as this sound is, it’s absolutely carried by the hooks – trying to get the chorus of We Sink or The Mother We Share out of your head is still a huge ask. This isn’t a record where singles are the only tracks worth noting – even the deeper cuts (sparkly Lungs or Depeche Mode-tinged By The Throat especially) are hard to not appreciate. Later albums would see Chvrches would see embrace pure sugariness and pop templates that are a smidge less clinical, but The Bones Of What You Believe is still a fantastic statement (particularly for a debut album made by a two-year-old band) and sure to be cited as a reference point for plenty of new synthpop artists for years to come. • GJ


The Offspring
Americana

The Offspring have a new album coming out soon, and the expectations for it are very low. That can be reasonably chalked up to Days Go By coming out nearly a decade ago and being generally bad even then, but the latter period of The Offspring’s career has been patchy on the whole to say the least. They’ve always been good at singles and individual cuts, but the albums really can’t follow suit nowadays, meaning that it’s somewhat strange to go back to Americana and find an overall solid punk experience from front to back. Yes, it sounds a bit dated in the production by today’s standards, but it’s worth noting that the importance of this album can still be felt, in overall tone and a disenfranchised, suburban take on the sound that influenced the rise of pop-punk to no end. Perhaps the passage of time has stopped it from feeling as revolutionary as it once might’ve done, but there’s a core of strength here that’s impossible to ignore, if only because there was still a hunger here that could pull off a seethe and stress, while still having its lighter moments on lock. It almost seems fitting that those moments are the ones that have prevailed the most, as Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) and Why Don’t You Get A Job? remain as some of their biggest hits, but to paint Americana in that singular light would be to ignore how multifaceted The Offspring’s approach could be at this time, and how it really hasn’t persevered as the years have gone on. It’s still a classic album for a reason, after all, perhaps more so in the realms of importance nowadays, but still good to throw on every now and then regardless. • LN


Young Guns
Echoes

The case of Young Guns is a strange one. Once contenders for the biggest modern Britrock success story with 2012 single Bones gaining impressive traction in the US, they’ve spent the last few years dormant, leaving fans unsure as to whether they’re still even a functioning band anymore. Their supposed ‘comeback’ (noticeably announced without too much fanfare) were festival sets celebrating the ten year anniversary of debut album All Our Kings Are Dead. Those plans might have ground to a halt for now because of *gestures at world*, but it seems that the onus of Young Guns’ return is firmly on the classics and any new material they may have. 2016’s Echoes decidedly doesn’t fall under those categories – despite relentless touring in support of it, reception felt lukewarm, certainly by Young Guns’ standards. Echoes acted as a return to more familiar guitar-based roots, but still with electronic touches from previous record Ones And Zeros. It makes for a strengthened, more refined Young Guns sound (even if it’s not the most original in the world) – the peaks and troughs between the floating-in-space gorgeousness of Awakening and the muscly Buried beautifully show off the nuances in this material, the only real lull being piano ballad Paradise. The knack Young Guns have for making melodic rock drives this whole record forward, the bulking up of guitars only adding more gravity and plenty of these choruses aiming much higher than the smallish rooms they were filling. This record shows Young Guns finding a happy medium. Paring back from either extreme of their sound perhaps didn’t make for the best story angle for promotion or boundary-pushing songs old and new fans can really dig into, but Echoes feels like it represents Young Guns’ sophisticated anthemia constructively. It’s likely it’s a record that will sink under another legacy (old or new) for the band, but there’s every chance that Echoes might end up being the album that embodies Young Guns best. • GJ


Stormzy
Heavy Is The Head

At the minute, there’s not a bigger name in UK hip-hop than Stormzy, and that’s probably set to continue for a while. The scene is incredibly strong nowadays, but no one has really reached the point of true, bona fide festival headliner like him, and while many will attribute the groundwork laid down on his debut Gang Signs & Prayer, Heavy Is The Head is the stronger culmination of everything that album set out to do. It feels more alive and propulsive, both in terms of production, themes and Stormzy as a rapper and lyricist; it’s just more of a complete package overall that can mostly justify an almost hour-long runtime. The pop crossover moments aren’t shunned – the ominous, nocturnal thud of Own It makes good use of its Ed Sheeran spot to balance it out, but there’s also the more pensive moments like Superheroes or the collaboration with H.E.R One Second – but the weaving drill touches of Audacity and the percussive, almost playful smack of Pop Boy show how deeply the variety runs, and how much better integrated it all is. Stormzy himself has a commanding presence and immediately recognisable voice, but he too does well as flitting between assertive and vulnerable, with the sort of ease that’s indicative of a consummate performer who’s only grown in terms of ability. On top of that, the production is immaculate throughout, and sounds every inch of the budget that’s clearly been fed into it to ensure that UK rap dominance remains on the table for as long as possible. The fact that Own It is still routinely among the most streamed tracks in the country almost 18 months after its release speaks volumes, as a testament to the longevity that Stormzy has fully achieved at this stage. • LN


Regina Spektor
Far

Regina Spektor has found a home in the hearts of plenty with her quirky piano folkpop and immersive lyrics based on anything from classic literature and folklore to what she has in her fridge that day. Her most unique quality though is her vocal talent – eccentric affectations and pronunciations are dotted throughout her skilled octave flitting, the way she tells the stories she writes making her a fascinating narrator. Her fourth record Far came after mainstream breakthrough Begin To Hope, an album that opened Spektor up as an indie champion who soundtracks adverts as opposed to a secret waiting to be let out. Some of the singer’s most beloved songs are on this record, but listening now, it’s obvious how transitional a step Far is. The album’s production is much cleaner, and although the scope of the record feels stepped up because of it, it does feel like it takes away from the spontaneous nature of her ideas. The slightly fuzzy delirium of material from Soviet Kitsch for example provided a backdrop where more off-the-wall experiments could work, but on crisp Far songs they stick out, and it’s clear on songs like Dance Anthem Of The 80s that Spektor hasn’t quite worked out how to balance these two sides of the coin. That said, Far has some career-best songs that perfectly encapsulate everything Regina Spektor is, like the childlike glee of Wallet, the world building of Machine, or Eet and Blue Lips which use all of the vocal and classical piano talents in her arsenal for maximum theatricality and impact. For all of the areas where the cracks show, Far still holds up as a solid showcase for an artist who inexplicably still needs introducing to many. • GJ


Royal Blood
Royal Blood

It’s still possible to remember a time when Royal Blood seemed so exciting, and that one summer where their songs were inescapable as the soundtrack to festival coverage and radio playlists all over the place. And to a degree, it’s easy to see where that came from – at the time, the rock duo mould was still in a rather fledgling state, and the novelty of a drummer and a bassist as the instrumental foundation still remains quite novel – but right now Royal Blood are not the band they once were. They haven’t aged all that gracefully, and while their debut is still alright, it’s nowhere near the level of enrapturing that many professed it to be in 2014. The grooves are still heavy and prominent, and the pop sensibility that’s gone into these songs really can’t be ignored, but with the benefit of hindsight, both in terms of the scene as a whole and where Royal Blood have gone musically, these songs do feel tightly clad to dissuade any sort of enhancement or experimentation. There isn’t much that you could plug into these songs to change the feel of them, and that’s a burden that’s held Royal Blood back pretty much up to the present day. It was more prominent on their sophomore album, but outside of the bigger hits like Out Of The Black, Little Monster or Ten Tonne Skeleton, you can feel a somewhat stretched set of ideas here, even on a relatively short album. It hasn’t fully been buried under time, but the freshness has worn down significantly, and while the duo look to be trying to combat that on Typhoons, whether or not they can entirely break free of their own limitations is a different story entirely. • LN


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

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