The Soundboard Stereo – November 2021

The end of the year is fast approaching, and that comes hand in hand with year end lists on the horizon. And having thought about them for a good while now, it’s hard to draw a conclusion on 2021 overall. It’s been more hopeful that 2020, but the obvious standouts have been just as few, and without the picks for the best of the year being nailed down just yet, there’s still a good few contenders in the running for a lot of people, some which might be quite the surprise. All of our year end coverage is coming soon, but until then—and in the last edition of The Soundboard Stereo for 2021—here’s what we’ve been listening to throughout November…

Silk Sonic

An Evening With Silk Sonic

As soon as Leave The Door Open dropped, the indication that Silk Sonic would be something to look forward to was immediately set. For one, the natural pop star power of Bruno Mars elevating Anderson .Paak’s platform to a similar level is the sort of melding of minds that can be exceptional to watch, but also the musical realms of ‘70s soul that were being explored have such a magnetic quality, especially from artists like this who’ve been so adept at fusing classic-worshipping with out-and-out throwbacks. And indeed, An Evening With Silk Sonic is one of the most easy-to-like albums to be released in some time, but stating that almost feels kind of obvious. There’s a certain chart-watched audience that feels as though it’s being courted here, from how lush and supple pretty much everything is, to how fluid genre experimentation and blending can be, to just the sheer charisma that both frontmen exude in a way that’s aping those soul stars without feeling like pastiche. It’s a narrow line to walk, particularly with how tongue-in-cheek a song like Smokin’ Out The Window can be, but that’s never to the album’s detriment when it’s carried with such glitz and showmanship. Both Mars and .Paak show off a tremendous level of comfort, be that in the ribald struts of Fly Like Me and Skate or any number of the album’s lush sex jams, and the backing collage of bass, guitar and velveteen gloss only add to how engulfingly charming the whole experience is. It all simply falls together with such ease, and Silk Sonic as a project creates one of the most airtight musical comfort zones to drop in perhaps years. Everyone’s already heard it by now, but a few more spins wouldn’t go amiss either. • LN


Jamie xx

In Colour

Dance music is often a good fit for more traditional ‘guitar’ bands to do some experimenting with, be it for the odd twinkly synth line to bulk up the mix or to create a full-on genre hybrid to soundtrack summer festivals. While others often dabble in such experimentation, the xx have always stood at the forefront of the marriage between the two genres. It’s clear that the band weren’t born out of a cynical need for clicks and streams either – the three members have an understanding of the way dance music works at its best, and Jamie xx’s 2015 solo album In Colour showcases that completely. There’s a reason why Gosh dominated festival tents in 2015 and 2016, its laddish refrain providing an easy in, but the build and climactic keyboard swell making audiences glad they stayed. Such inclines and unexpected turns are a Jamie xx trademark (making appearances on Hold Tight’s climax and I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’s warped xylophones for example), and the warmth this record radiates at all times makes the likeable songs even more likeable (Sleep Sound which balances a dreamy, stop-starting synth backdrop with a chopped up sample of It’s A Blue World by The Four Freshmen a particular highlight) and the songs that don’t quite hit the sweet spot never feel like out-and-out failures. Tracks in that latter category often err on the more introspective side, like Stranger In A Room (featuring fellow xx member Oliver Sim), arguably the most low-key composition on this record but necessary to allow the listener and other songs to breathe. Loud Places (featuring xx singer Romy) takes this idea further, its lush instrumentation a perfect complement to Romy’s breathy vocal. As a whole, it can back any emotion that could possibly be felt while listening, acting as an enveloping dreamscape for any high, a comfort blanket for any panic or a friendly ear for anyone feeling the same sorrow described in the song’s lyrics. Whether soundtracking party apexes or in its more mellow moments, In Colour is a record that omits pure joy, designed to fit to any number of specific moods and moments in any night out. • GJ


Fall Out Boy

American Beauty / American Psycho

When considering the breaking point that most experience with Fall Out Boy’s post-hiatus material, rarely does a consensus to when that truly was come up. Save Rock & Roll is the easy target, but American Beauty / American Psycho is probably where things became too much, where the zany pop antics subsumed the band who was once there completely, and spat out the ugly, corporate creature we know as Fall Out Boy today. Except that’s not really fair, partly because Fall Out Boy do still work to the beat of their own creative drum in a mainstream space, even now, and partly because American Beauty / American Psycho isn’t the colossal implosion many would be so keen to label it. It’s messy, sure, but seldom more so than this band were in the later parts of their first wave, only now is it more prominent with just how overstuffed this album can be. The samples do become a bit much when they’re so blatantly shoved in or unable to carry what’s around them that much (see the title track or Uma Thurman), but particularly in the album’s second half, Fall Out Boy’s pop savvy does come into play in a profoundly positive light, when there are songs like Jet Pack Blues or Fourth Of July that feel fresh and new without stripping away that integral DNA. The common complaint with this later material is that it’s often created at the expense of real instrumental presence, and while it’s hard to argue against that completely, there’s at least enough about it that’s been warped in place to make this compelling all the same. Of course, the band would stretch way beyond their means with M A N I A, and what’s to come following that remains to be seen, but for a band that’s warranted replacing the term ‘fan’ for ‘defender’ so often, there’s enough here to continue to go to bat for and exercise that defence. • LN


Florence + The Machine

Ceremonials

It’s always hard to follow up a successful debut album, but when your debut is as distinct and otherwordly as Florence + The Machine’s Lungs, you really have your work cut out for you. Their move on follow-up Ceremonials was to meet expectations of their rising star. The songs on the recordfeel like a natural progression from the sound on Lungs with the added context of needing to fill arenas instead of academies. Opulence is the name of the game on this record, songs like Only If For A Night and No Light, No Light boasting arena-ready choruses with dreamy, twinkling instrumentation, ready to appeal to the fans they’ve earned and the ones they could earn with the reputation they’d built up with Lungs. Though that musical scope has widened, though, Ceremonials boasts a lot less unique character than its predecessor. Welch’s voice remains the sole real indicator that this is the same Florence + The Machine who made Lungs, swapping the harp and gutsy folk lyrics about killing birds and sacrificing rabbit hearts for more radio-friendly lyrics, cavernous production and a full orchestra. Ceremonials could never be home to a song like Drumming Song, which portrayed an animalistic side to attraction that was more than palpable in the music. Instead more complicated, darker emotions come out in What The Water Gave Me or Seven Devils, both sinister and more cerebral than anything Florence + The Machine had done before. Heartlines is a nice bridge between the two records and versions of Florence, sounding like it could accompany a ritualistic dance around a campfire, one that thousands were partaking in. It feels like Florence + the Machine have gotten more and more stripped back on every album of theirs – 2015’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was even more filed down to a clear cut Stevie Nicks / Kate Bush hybrid, while 2018’s High As Hope took it even further to the point of being almost wholly unmemorable. With hindsight, Ceremonials hits a sweet spot in their discography. While not as unabashedly original and creative as Lungs, Ceremonials’ foot in the folky door paired with audible levelling up struck a balance the band haven’t been able to pull off since. • GJ


Young Guns

Ones And Zeros

Most 2010s Britrock hasn’t aged well in retrospect, but Young Guns really did dig themselves into a whole at a certain point. That certain point, obviously enough, was this album, the follow-up to the tremendously successful Bones (which still isn’t without it’s charm nowadays) and what set off a backslide that the band are yet to truly recover from. It’s endemic of all the faculties of the Britrock age—overpolished production; so-so lyrics; a profound sense of colourlessness across the board—but for some reason blown out to the nth degree, now incorporating synth palettes and even more booming might without having the meat to back it up. This is a deeply hollow feeling album, almost totally forgettable outside of its singes (coincidentally sounding more in line with Young Guns’ traditional sound, at that), and with shockingly little replay value that carried on even further to its follow-up Echoes. Even now, more than half a decade removed and even after a relatively recent revisit, Ones And Zeros presents shockingly little to say and in hindsight, acts as a remarkable harbinger for what Young Guns would become following it. It’s no surprise that Young Guns’ upcoming live slate dominated by anniversary celebrations of their debut is the most excitement that’s surrounded them in ages; this album has seemingly poisoned the well for them going forward, a statement which may seem hyperbolic but definitely has the evidence to back it up. Honestly, with the number of bands from this era dropping like flies even to this day, it’s a minor miracle that a post-Ones And Zeros Young Guns have survived. • LN


En Vogue

Funky Divas

Musically, it feels like the technology at the time this record was being made has done it a slight disservice—some of the dated instrumentation on Funky Divas definitely doesn’t hold up today, plus the long conversational intros setting up a ‘vibe’ for the album place the recordfirmly in the 1990s. That being said, there’s a reason why girl groups still cite En Vogue as a major influence to this day. Their harmonies are sublime and packed with character and likeability, setting a standard that groups like TLC would later follow. Plus, there’s no Diana Ross or Beyonce in En Vogue—every member carries equal weight and more than holds their own. It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings and My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It) are both empowerment anthems that make anyone listening want to put on their best outfit and strut down the nearest high street. But it’s Free Your Mind that stands out as the best this record has to offer, its rock edge giving the four singers room to growl and rasp its defiant lyrics. A simpler reason though, is that it’s one of the few tracks on the record that has a traditional song structure (instead of stretching one or two ideas across four minutes) – the deafening tin drums and pre-chorus really build up to that chorus, which will be stuck in your head for days after. That said, for a group whose personality and sass is so tangible on My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It), there are a lot of slower songs on Funky Divas, which is this album’s downfall. Apart from a difference in intent for each song, Desire and their covers of The Beatles’ Yesterday and Aretha Franklin’s Giving Him Something He Can Feel are all slightly monotonous unless you’re focusing solely on the brilliance of the band’s vocal arrangement. All in all, there’s lots to admire on Funky Divas, and even though not everything on it is bonafide classic material, it cemented En Vogue as major players in girl group history and more than paved the way for other legends afterwards. • GJ


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

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