The Soundboard Stereo – January 2022

2022 has already gotten off to a stacked start, and that doesn’t look set to change much. Yes, that same statement can be made every year (and probably has and will continue to be), but there’s just a mood that’s began to permeate already that feels particularly noteworthy. Live music is still making its return and a lot of high-profile acts will be dropping releases soon, to where many will be hoping to envision this year as the end of the pandemic, where there’s more hope for normality. Fingers crossed then, but in the meantime, here’s what we’ve been listening to this month in the first edition of The Soundboard Stereo for 2022…

An illustration of a man in a beam of light, standing on a hill above a town

The Blackout

The Best In Town

The dual clean and unclean vocalist setup specifically in 2010s Britrock, while great for a band’s image, was arguably not always entirely necessary. We Are The Ocean and Deaf Havana thrived after their heavier vocalist left the bands, and such formats are much less fashionable now than they were then. The Blackout are a unique example for back in their day. With Sean Smith bringing the charisma and personality and Gavin Butler bringing the bonafide vocal talent, the band simply would not have worked without one or the other. 2011’s Hope is probably the highlight of their career, but predecessor The Best In Town shows The Blackout at their most individual and successful at balancing ‘hardcore’ with the ‘post’. Almost everything The Blackout ever released had fun right at the forefront, this record mixing that aim in nicely with their heavier roots. Opener STFUppercut is still a total adrenaline rush start to finish, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (featuring Josh Franceschi of You Me At Six) is a true party starter, while Children Of The Night and Save Our Selves (The Warning) channel The Blackout’s characteristic energy through a more lofty, epic lens. The Blackout are remembered for their untouchable charisma and sense of fun, and The Best In Town shows that in spades even now. • GJ

The Weeknd aged to look like an old man

The Weeknd

Dawn FM

If there’s a reputation one can reasonably bestow upon The Weeknd nowadays, it’s that he makes music that’s among some of the easiest to like in the mainstream space. It’s all flagrantly retro and his sonic touchstones are frequently obvious, but between strings of singles that have withstood the test of time remarkably well and the unanimity in After Hours’ quality, you’d be hard-pressed to picture an artist whose start came in murky, bleary indie-R&B defined by its rampant nihilism. More to the point, that original depiction of The Weeknd probably wouldn’t have made an album like Dawn FM, formatted to resemble a radio playlist complete with interjections from its DJs (namely Quincy Jones and Jim Carrey), and piling on the synthpop worship to hitherto unexplored heights in this capacity. This has never been The Weeknd’s most interesting side (the lyrics have frequently done the heavy lifting on that front and it’s no different here), but like so much of what’s come before—effectively since Beauty Behind The Madness, really—this is a hard album to actively dislike. Heavily leaning on his Michael Jackson influence tightens the synthpop propulsion even further, but also keeps the album’s emotional core intact; The Weeknd has always had an expressive voice, and his malleability here is really no different. It does mean that it can be hard to place an obvious hit compared to previous works when everything does feel largely uniform, but that’s not to the album’s detriment. Indeed, while it’s not exactly a brisk listen, there’s a lack of true lows even deep into the tracklist (Don’t Break My Heart especially stands out as banger towards the end), and that pays dividends when it comes to momentum, and the right ways to keep it moving. It also helps that the production has the note-perfect gloss and refinement that so much of this brand of synthpop thrives on, dappled with a bit of gothic flavour as a nod to The Weeknd’s roots, but never subsuming the album’s overall focus. It doesn’t leave much to say beyond that because it is just self-evidently solid all the way down, just as is always expected from The Weeknd and just as he always delivers. • LN

A hash key from a telephone pad

Death Cab For Cutie

Codes And Keys

At the time of Codes And Keys’ release, critics fell over themselves to brand it Death Cab For Cutie’s ‘happy’ album, some even branding Ben Gibbard’s then-wife Zooey Deschanel their own Yoko Ono. Positivity isn’t something Death Cab immediately scream, but their take on it on 2011’s Codes and Keys makes for the band’s most misunderstood album. The lighter mood gives the classic Death Cab framework a bit more room to breathe, especially when Ben Gibbard shifts gears into his signature warbling falsetto, and even bringing a sense of familiarity to songs outside of the band’s usual sphere. Sometimes the ideas explored on this record are pushed a tad past their limits, like on six-minute Unobstructed Views which turns into more of a slog than probably intended. Otherwise, there are some beautifully crafted songs on Codes And Keys. The National-esque rolling sparseness of opener Home Is A Fire exudes characteristic Death Cab mellow, vocal sample embellishments and a spacious instrumental make You Are A Tourist the ultimate introspective anthem, while the piano lead of Some Boys and Portable Television show off a playful side to the band not often shown before. The crown jewels of Codes And Keys are two polar opposites – the expertly orchestrated soft-rock slow-build Doors Unlocked And Open and closer Stay Young, Go Dancing which is utterly gorgeous and whimsical, a vibe Gibbard both sells undoubtedly while still keeping it grounded and away from Disney soundtracks. Codes and Keys certainly isn’t all sunshine and rainbows (Gibbard and Deschanel announcing their separation mere months after its release certainly gives new meaning to some songs in retrospect), but Death Cab For Cutie’s toning down of the emo certainly doesn’t mean a dip in quality. • GJ

The words ‘new low’ in pink with a stream of pinks, purples and blues coming from its left


New Low

No matter how much new music comes across your desk to cover, there’ll always be some that slips through the cracks. It’s impossible to give everything the attention deserves, but when it comes to nightlife staking their claim with their New Low EP last year, there’s definitely some penance that needs to be made, because this is really that good. Obviously there isn’t a great deal to go on with only three tracks, but even so, this feels like a big shot in the arm for alt-pop on almost every front. The main attraction is easily the title track, mixing a neon ‘80s sheen with splashes of pop-rock, horns, straight-up pop and even a gurgling funk bassline at one point, while still feeling as though not a second has been wasted in really making that mark. There’s even more pliability displayed across this sampler too; All I Know feels bigger and more rock-oriented but still uses its gloss and pop admiration to its advantage, while Lonely is probably the weakest of the three with its stiffer percussion that’s definitely dated less flatteringly, but still has the expanse that nightlife clearly define their sound with, just off this evidence. Vocalist Hansel Romero is also a fully-formed superstar already, in liquid tones and a command of soul that sticks so prominently throughout. A lot of the classification around this band has thrown around the term ‘soul-punk’, and while that mightn’t be totally accurate (the ‘punk’ doesn’t sit the most comfortably), this definitely feels like a bright new band working to make a place for themselves with palpable tenacity and talent. Hopefully there’s more sooner rather than later, because no matter how good the sampler is, it’s not going to satisfy forever. • LN

A belly-button with four flower petals around it

Tonight Alive


Public perception of Tonight Alive took something of a nosedive with their 2016 album Limitless, a record that pivoted away from the always-earnest pop punk they made their name with and dialled up the saccharine. There’s a lot more meat to follow-up Underworld’s instrumentation, but the lyrical sentiments very much echo Limitless. Relatable anecdotals are masked by metaphors that lean into the more openly spiritual side the band, making it harder to really get to the root of what’s being said without doing some of your own digging. The added crunch of the guitars on Underworld is clearly meant as much as a tonic to the more vapid nature of the lyrics as much as it is a step towards reclaiming their pop punk crown, the dilution of the intentions of the record making the majority of these songs feel wishy-washy. The rock-oriented collaborations illustrate this; while a solid song by itself, there’s a lot of unfulfilled potential with much-hyped Lynn Gunn duet Disappear., Gunn’s solo chorus is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, her floatier voice very much secondary to McDougall’s in the mix when they do come together. Closer My Underworld featuring Corey Taylor has similar issues; it’s a perfectly serviceable duet, but doesn’t feel fully integrated and isn’t electrifying like his and McDougall’s powerful vocals could have been. Away from the collaborations, the songs that do stick are the ones where singer Jenna McDougall exercises her vocal chops like Crack My Heart and Just For Now, production from Dave Petrovic (who worked with Tonight Alive on 2013’s The Other Side) really turning up guitars to give such songs much more air. Underworld is certainly Tonight Alive taking a step back towards their pop punk roots, but until they further that journey more in future, at the moment that’s all it is. • GJ

Digable Planets in the top half of a bisected circle, with roots in the bottom half

Digable Planets

Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space)

Digable Planets’ brand of hip-hop might as well have come from a million years ago nowadays. That’s not to say it’s bad—quite the opposite, actually—but when you consider this album spawned a charting hit in Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat), and then compare it to what the genre touts as its biggest names today, and you’ll really only find the presence of rhythmic vocals to be a similarity. It’s mostly because Digable Planets feel rooted in beat poetry and jazz to comprise their sound, making for the sort of warm, sunny and crucially organic hip-hop that might as well have ‘The 1990s’ stamped all across it. It sounds fantastic sonically though, in the horns and the rounded bass that let the crackles in the mix peek out, and the smoothness and low-key delivery of the group’s three MCs that has an ease about it all the way through. At the same time though, it can be easy to see why this isn’t remembered as much today; the pace doesn’t evolve too much and can leave the album dragging, and just as a package, it can ring as a bit inaccessible in some of the avenues it goes down. Even so, this is such a rewarding listen to really dig into; it’s at its best when the instrumentation is allowed to really wash by and engulf in just how foundationally solid it is, even amid production that meets the ol’ ‘90s hip-hop staple of not ageing the best, but still sounding good just for what it’s offering. It’s an interesting find, this one, and definitely worth exploring further. Digable Planets’ catalogue mightn’t be the most extensive, but this album in particular definitely feels worthwhile. • LN

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

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