One of the hardest things about reviewing records is working out what to do with the boring ones. Good albums are easy to review, really awful ones even more so. There’s always plenty to say. But try and squeeze 500 words out of an album you just don’t care about either way? It takes some skill. Dan was BRILLIANT at reviewing boring albums. They gave him an opportunity to stretch his imagination, to pull in whatever happened to be tickling him that week and batter and stretch it into a framework.
This write-up of the decidedly average latest Stereophonics record is perfect example. It’s a 6 out of 10. No-one ever enjoyed writing a 6/10 review except, possibly, Dan Lucas. For starters he pulls a football match from three years ago out of his memory and uses it as a framing device (and, no, it has not escaped my notice that as I write this Manchester City have just played away in the Champion’s League, conceding two goals in the first half, just as they did on that day in 2013 Dan describes. Yes I do think that’s weird. Yes Dan would have done a much better job at using this as a metaphor than I am). He also packs his review with unassailable Dan Lucas zingers - (“If this sounds like I’m damning the album with faint praise then your expectations for the Stereophonics are absurdly off kilter.”). The gimmicks and the gags are deceptive though - Dan does a really decent job of sketching out the album, and no reader would be in any doubt about whether they would like the record or not; which of course is the art of good critical writing. He uses his skills here to entertain you, his knowledge to illuminate and his good sense to let you make your own mind up.
Annoyingly Dan never resolves his Man City framing device. He stops talking about them half way through and leaves you to work it out for yourself - I always wanted to ask him about it, but never got around to it, and eventually forgot. I suspect it never had a resolution, it was just a way entertaining his readers - and himself- while he snuck a dull album under their noses. Or maybe he just wanted to write about football for a bit. Either way, it’s very Dan.
December 2013: the nouveau riche upstarts of Manchester City are playing a crucial Champions League group match away to the mighty reigning champions, Bayern Munich. For a City fan, the match starts terribly, as Thomas Müller and Mario Götze put the home side 2-0 up inside the first few minutes.
Keep the Village Alive, the ninth studio album from Stereophonics opens up with the lead single, ‘C’est La Vie’. It’s crap. Really crap. Like, ‘Vegas Two Times’ crap. It’s a bawdy, laddish pub rocker and at the end of each line vocalist Kelly Jones does that thing where he awkwardly shifts up in pitch for the last two words and makes everything rhyme with ‘yeah’. The Stereophonics spent several years putting out some rubbish that no one gave a toss about before surprising us all with the thoroughly decent Graffiti on the Train in the same year that Manchester City were embarking on their trip to Germany; was that a false dawn before this massive regression?
Back to December 2013 and catastrophe is averted. David Silva and Aleksandar Kolarov score to draw City level, before James Milner becomes an unlikely hero, capping his best game for the club with the winning goal shortly after the hour. It’s not a perfect performance: City sit back and settle for the 3-2 win, not realising that a fourth goal would send them through as group winners to a much easier second-round draw (they end up getting fucking Barcelona, don’t they).
The remaining nine tracks on Keep the Village Alive are, by and large, not bad. There’s nothing to break the mould here, nothing that stands out and surprises like ‘Dakota’ did, but come on guys, it’s the Stereophonics: how many times did you think they were going to do that? It’s generic, but there will be few albums this year so competently generic as this.
Lead single aside, this is mostly mature Stereophonics; two words that should adequately describe what you’re getting. It’s a mixture of straightforward piano, straightforward rhythms and straightforward electric and acoustic guitars. The one exception is ‘Sunny’, with its surprisingly tricky-sounding guitar solo brought subtly into the foreground from the mid-Seventies.
Nevertheless, Jones and co. are handy enough with a hook that the best songs on here – the likes of the second single, ‘I Wanna Get Lost With You’, as well as ‘White Lies’, ‘Song for the Summer’ and the aforementioned ‘Sunny’ – are immediate enough to make this the best Stereophonics album since You Gotta Go There to Come Back. If this sounds like I’m damning the album with faint praise then your expectations for the Stereophonics are absurdly off kilter.
If ‘C’est La Vie’ was the album opening with jerky then ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ is it closing with steak. This is almost certainly a first: a Stereophonics song that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. First you have to admire the chutzpah in how brazenly its opening riff rips off ‘Here Comes the Sun’. But then give it time – it runs for six minutes, after all – and the way it builds, the drums building urgency, the fuzz of the lo-fi guitar crescendo and the way it combines with a chiming organ, and it’s genuinely a good song and probably the first thing they’ve done since ‘Dakota’ that will appeal to non-‘Phonics fans.