Stereophonics are a band that I hold very close to my heart. In their prime in the early 2000s, they happened to be the headliners at the first proper gig I went to. It was wetter than your standard otter’s pocket, but the Welsh rockers put on a brilliant show, amidst a burglary into the mainstream and a rapidly rising fan base. Since they exploded out of the valleys as a then trio in the mid-to-late nineties, capably armed with a Britpop and rock infused fresh, radio-friendly sound, they have firmly established themselves as mainstays of the British music scene for over a decade…
With their last two releases, however (2007s Pull the Pin and 2009s Keep Calm and Carry On) the band have ambled dangerously, meandering in a ‘meat and potatoes’ dubbed comfort zone, with no drastic evolution or positive change in direction. Graffiti on the Train, I’m afraid to say, slots into the same pigeonhole as its immediate predecessors, with a parade of rigidly structured tracks showing a cutting edge comparable to that of a bowling ball. This is indicative from the outset, with a subdued acoustic opening instigating a build-up of anticipation for a bigger, frank chorus in bookend track We Share the Same Sun. But yeah, it’s plain to see before the opening track is even over that Graffiti on the Train is not going to be clearing the boundaries of the comfort zone that Stereophonics’ music has happily resided in for over half a decade.
There is, however, a notably darker motif to this album than any Stereos LP since Just Enough Education to Perform. The fact that Graffiti on the Train is the first album since the tragic death of former drummer Stuart Cable may go some way to explaining the consistently prevalent morose mood throughout the record. It was no secret to those who follow the band that Kelly Jones and Cable had their differences following the late drummer’s acrimonious departure from the band, and although the pair had reportedly patched up these differences by the time of Cable’s death, the downbeat nature of Graffiti on the Train may go some way to imply just how big of a loss Cable was to the band, both as a friend and as a founding member. Title track Graffiti on the Train is perhaps the most explicit exponent of this analogy. A track that exudes nostalgia and reminiscence is downright lugubrious, and confirms that the album it’s named after is not going to be one to whack on at a birthday party.
The fact of the matter is that Stereophonics are now seasoned pros, and their sound has matured and honed in accordance with that. Jones has always proved himself to be an excellent songwriter, and that hasn’t changed here. He undoubtedly manages to convey his own melancholic ideals through his music as well as in Just Enough Education to Perform in tracks such as Violins and Tambourines, No-one’s Perfect, and the title track itself. You cannot take anything away from the band. The album is good, but no more than that. Naturally, you don’t expect anything less from a band of this grandeur, but there is no knife-edge that hits home, and the exponential decrease in the band’s catchment size is synonymous with the lack of structural and experimental evolution.
All in all, I see this as a missed opportunity for Stereophonics. The sombre, downbeat, reflective cloud that hangs over the record could have been used as a catalyst to delve into new musical pastures, but again the band have stayed within the realms of their previous work. Never have they managed to recapture the enthusiasm and outward enjoyment of their first two records, or the musical swagger that I saw on that rather moist day in Manchester a decade ago. Although slightly catchier numbers such as Indian Summer and Catacombs punctuate the lugubriousness of Graffiti on the Train, the rigid song structures and lyrics lacking bespoke creativity are the lasting memoirs of the record.
The impression I get is that, although this is a solid album musically, you would be astounded at anything else; and ultimately, making music is becoming more and more an occupation for the band rather than a leisurely pastime, and a more “sensible” sound is the product. British bands that have stood the test of time, for example Radiohead, Coldplay and Biffy Clyro, have cleared their own boundaries, branched out of their comfort zones and often taken startling changes in direction in order to maintain a fresh sound. Stereophonics simply have not done this, hence the universal ‘meat and potatoes’ tag, and a steady decrease in album sales. One thing’s for sure, though; the intimate UK tour the band will embark upon this year will be one worth catching… let’s just hope they don’t use too much setlist time on tracks from Graffiti on the Train. In conclusion, solid record, but it simply does not hit home hard enough. 51%.
*First published on No Ripcord*