The Soundboard Stereo – April 2021

As we predicted last month, April hasn’t had a whole lot to shout about. Releases have been fair in volume and quality, but with not too much to fully amaze, even with some pretty good stuff overall. It’s evident of how scattered 2021 has been as a year so far, standing in the shadow of the turbulence of 2020 without a clear game plan of how to move forward, so just trying whatever it can at any given time to keep rolling on. To be fair, it’s worked well enough, and the schedule for May would imply things to be picking up, but as always, only time will tell. And until then, here’s what’s been on The Soundboard Stereo throughout April…

Lynyrd Skynyrd

(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd)

There are certain eras and branches of classic rock that’ll find themselves inherently defined by the hits they spawned rather than full albums, and that’s not entirely unwarranted. Looking at something like hair-metal, a great chorus or power ballad is always going to rise above the rest of an album where it’s clearly designed to be the best song. Of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut predates that entire movement by nearly a decade, though a similar ‘singles band’ principle will often be attributed to them, often without realising how many of those great songs come from the one album. As hot a take as it might be, Sweet Home Alabama isn’t a very good song, not when compared classics like Tuesday’s Gone, Gimme Three Steps, Simple Man and – of course – Free Bird that comprise half of this album, and make for arguably the definitive southern-rock album. As much as the length can be bemoaned on face value with songs ranging from four minutes to nine, it’s not like Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t do anything with them, in the scorching guitars and grooves that rumble through excellent reams of acoustics, bass and pianos, and in Ronnie Van Zant’s vocals that really don’t get enough credit for how good they are, especially when those emotional moments kick in and the band truly begin to fly. There’s definitely a sense of dichotomy that runs through Lynyrd Skynyrd here, in how the vaunted ‘remarkable unremarkable’-ness will permeate so readily, particularly on a song like Mississippi Kid, but there’s the winding grandiosity to how these songs will play out; in 1973, at the peak of prog, that feels as though it’s been taken onboard to an extent, but crossbred with a rootsiness and unmistakable flavour of Americana that’s still so distinct. Granted, the band’s current incarnation is so far removed from those glory days and has been for a long time, but it’s hard to deny the greatness that Lynyrd Skynyrd put as their first foot down, a defining release within southern rock, and for rock music as a whole, an album that’s produced some true, all-time classics. • LN

Taylor Swift

Fearless (Taylor’s Version)

The battle surrounding the ownership of Taylor Swift’s masters and her decision to re-record her first six albums is one that’s been much-rehashed by both spectators and the parties involved, so much so that we don’t need to get into the gory details here. But this month saw the first Taylor’s Version drop – sophomore album and pop chart breakthrough Fearless. For much of Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the story is rooted in both context and the ridiculous levelling up of these songs – crisper instrumentals that sand the rougher edges of the country-tinged originals and Swift’s vocals, strengthened, particularly in higher octaves and able to emote more clearly. These improvements and the context surrounding them and the original recordings often intertwine, too. Fifteen is no longer a big sister imparting wisdom of what she’s learned in the last few years but a thirty-year-old’s ode to her teenage years. Tell Me Why has more bite with the gift of hindsight, while The Way I Loved You and The Other Side Of The Door (two of the biggest improvements on the record), are sang with audible winks despite discussing subject matter the Taylor of today hasn’t identified with in years. The history of the first 20 songs on Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is already long, but for the extra, never before heard ‘From The Vault’ tracks, the page is fresh. All are distinctly Fearless and have the potential to be fan favorites, but none more so than Mr Perfectly Fine, a Swiftian takedown which could get crowds of thousands of scorned lovers relishing its barbs while still jumping for joy. The songs on Fearless were so quintessentially twenty-something, about a young woman treading new ground as she finds her way in life. Taylor’s Version represents a new version of just that, and has made the arduous process of re-recording her music more than worth it, both for fans and herself. • GJ

Billie Eilish

don’t smile at me

Since her debut full-length was released in 2019, there’s definitely been a shift in perspective when it comes to Billie Eilish’s music in this writer’s opinion. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is still a really uneven and unfocused album, but it has a lot of moments that have stuck through overplay or otherwise, and that’s allowed the creative mojo and presence of Eilish to really seep through, especially in the wave of bedroom-pop and TikTok driven music that came afterwards. It’s almost uncanny, then, that dont smile at me so readily comes across like one of those releases, in a quieter, smaller scale that’s probably more even keeled than its successor, in that the highs aren’t quite as memorable or memetic for the most part, but it shows where the seeds were planted and exactly what they’d bloom into. The big standout is ocean eyes as a track that captures solemnity, intensity, vulnerability and true hurt in a frankly beautiful little song, while COPYCAT foreshadows some of the malevolence that would be better utilised later, and bellyache lays down some of her more ‘conventional’ pop streak. Admittedly it’s not quite as exciting on a revisit, giving that what comes next feels a lot more set-in-stone for where Eilish’s musical identity lies, and there’s a naïveté that’s evident of a much younger, less sharp artist. But this is still solid overall, worth it for its contextual standing above all else, but not without merit when it comes to defining where Eilish is as a musician now. There’s a reason so many of these songs remain fan favourites, and even if they’ve been largely eclipsed now, it’s hard to argue with all the same. • LN

Bombay Bicycle Club

So Long, See You Tomorrow

After burning through three new guises in the space of two years, 2014’s So Long, See You Tomorrow marked a different musical shift for Bombay Bicycle Club. This was a record that blared instead of slowly seeping in as Bombay albums prior tended to, full of vibrant colour and unfeigned joy, something their previous indie or folk rock masks can often lack. Dipping into synthetic beats, loops, and, er, Bollywood samples (thanks to singer Jack Steadman’s trip to India pre-writing these songs), rich, exciting instrumentals are the focal point of this album, as opposed to the big indie choruses, more toned-down lyricism or organic indie-dance the band have tried out before. New ideas are dispersed into songs in a way not dissimilar to how Vampire Weekend do with their more outlandish, baroque ideas, creating something fresh but never feeling forced. The sense of warmth this band radiates constantly certainly helps, making tracks like It’s Alright Now and Luna feel authentically loveable alongside the type of busy yet sprawling soundscape it can be hard to really connect to. The few glitches with starker instrumentals stick out and fail to grab attention, acting as the biggest hints to the band’s future decision to leave all sonic progress they’d made firmly on this record. doubling back and returning to a much less interesting sound on their next album, 2020’s Everything Else Has Gone Wrong (which seemed to hit a critical dead end as a result). So Long, See You Tomorrow remains the glaring outlier in Bombay Bicycle Club’s discography in the best way – hopefully the band see sense and refer back to its ideas when conceptualising future projects. • GJ

AJ Tracey

AJ Tracey

Compared to the swathes of other artists alongside him in UK hip-hop, AJ Tracey feels distinctly different from the vast majority of them. He describes himself as both a popstar and a rockstar on consecutive lines on his self-titled debut, the sort of flagrant grandstanding befitting of both genres, with a stylistic shift away from the street-level hip-hop that such claims might be trying to augment. It’s not wonder that Ladbroke Grove became such a huge hit then, as an encapsulation of a chameleonic artist looking to nudge the boundaries of his genre outwards, through an approach that was still terrifically energetic and vital. There are moments like that all across this album, whether it’s in the glassy garage of that track, the wavy, tropical tones of Rina and Butterflies, the fluid R&B-leaning moments of Jackpot and Psych Out!, and the glaring outlier in Country Star that’s pulling from acoustic pop overall, but the sentiment is appreciated. Perhaps it’s not a clear-cut vision of who AJ Tracey is as an artist (and the lyrics don’t really help in that regard), but even now, with a follow-up album to provide some even greater context, this feels like an oddity within UK hip-hop of the past few years, but in a good way. Splicing the zeitgeist and crafting around his own vision is clearly something that’s taken AJ Tracey to huge heights, and the quality of his efforts speak for themselves, in a scattered yet fascinating album that hasn’t lost any of its shine or replay value even a couple of years removed. • LN


Talking Dreams

The indie-pop boom of the 2010s might have seen the birth of plenty of fresh faced bands, but those blessed with longevity are much fewer in number. Echosmith are one of the bands who’ve definitely faded into the background since their breakthrough, a sound not exactly saturated with personality making a seven-year gap between full-length albums a death knell. Debut record Talking Dreams, home to inescapable hit Cool Kids,is the least guilty of this of their projects, but it’s certainly not an opus. Lyrically, this record doesn’t really go further than teenage diary and fairytale romance cliches that are tired just a few songs in, and some of the actual songwriting and structuring of verses fits together slightly awkwardly. That said, there’s something inexplicable about this album that just makes it really easy to like. The echoey production gives these songs a youthful, dreamlike feel that is the closest thing to a trademark stamp, with a sunkissed filter hammering home the decidedly no sad songs feel. They’re proficient at creating and selling the head-spinning, heart-racing young love stories that take up Talking Dreams – just look at the glittering title track which remains the best thing Echosmith have ever put their name to – but songs like Safest Place (which has a bit more crunch) and the sweeping Surround You hint at more versatility, something never quite realised in the rest of the band’s career to date. With hindsight, the thought of a total masterpiece coming from Echosmith seems like a tall ask, but Talking Dreams is a lovely slice of wistful indie-pop for all who seek it out. • GJ

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

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