Stereophonics - Graffiti On The Train

To compare this with a recent(ish) metaphor of ranking particular individuals competing for dominance in the same field, if Welsh rock were an Olympic event (from my perspective), we'd find an act like Manic Street Preachers claiming gold; not-as-long-running personal favorites Future Of The Left snatching the silver, and in bronze position, Stereophonics would more than likely pip the post, if with the backing of a photo finish (sorry Feeder, you're just not there...and most likely, never will be). I guess what makes a band like Stereophonics deemable for a top-ranking position - like many a Welsh outfit - is the connective formula in front-man Kelly Jones' recognizable twangy-nasally vocal deliverance and the band's (despite going through three drummers and adding one more to their line-up six years previous) flutter of former garage rock soon leading to more alternate and melodic rock sounds. And the reason why they're limited, unfortunately, to 3rd place in just as likely more than my own list of Welsh outfits is the way they've gone about recent outputs. Where their earlier material was a welcome shift into new ground after the Britpop scene in mid-90's, their later albums though dabbling in more pop-orientated compositions, somewhat lingered and grew stale as the discography grew larger and the ideas dried up. There were, admittedly, a few off-shoots of former grungier garage flurry, but for the most part, Stereophonics became more and more the tried-and-tested chore that became less a band still going strong, and more a band that reminded us the best of their material had already been made. So coming to the 'Phonics' eighth album, Graffiti On The Train I wonder then whether the band have anything to offer other than a meaningless return to a band I'd forgotten for reasons other than humble wandering for something more.

Well, surprisingly, what standardized predictions I'd made prior to this are blown straight out of the water. From the off, there's a definite concept and means of focus in Stereophonics' sound. Opening track We Share The Same Sun expresses more an acoustic and quite melancholic, withdrawn form of storytelling than past records. Even when the track eventually breaks out into recognizable spurts of guitar rock and marching drum rhythms, Jones' vocal passages feel a lot more placed and focused than past offerings. The heavy strums and mutters of percussion matches well with the song's inclusion of sweeter, perhaps more emotively rich, textures of guitar and above all, I'm rather compelled - maybe drawn in - by Jones' strong, urgent (but slightly disarrayed) means of lyricism. The title track, I guess, is as much a follow-on from this more narrative, more direct approach of the album's aesthetic themes, as much as it is a means to identify with what it is the record could be reaching for in the long term. Jones' vocals this time, however, are given better placement and room for expansion; guitars thankfully a lot less inflated and loose, while the inclusion of sweeping violins and strings makes for some interesting scopes of sound throughout. Jones doesn't necessarily tread any new ground so far as it conflicts what vocal expression we've come to identify with him as a front-man in the past. But here, it feels a lot more worked-around and viably executed alongside what is, again, a very emotionally-fueled piece spiced up with rough guitar tones as much as it's soothingly left to simmer with reaches of strings nestling in the backdrop.

It's a good time then that lead single Indian Summer comes in, at this point in the album. Much like the previous track, the band decide on mixing the instrumental line-up around, even if the production techniques are kept at a minimum. There's a measured balance of somber acoustic and distant electric sweeps in this track, but it's the lead pistons of violins that are the stand-out element here. But given there's plenty of strummed rhythm and pace to the track, it gives both the orchestral cries that delve into the chorus sections, as well as Jones' high-reaching cries of vocals, that extra edge and greater means of impact on the listener. Admittedly, the lyrics themselves aren't as impacting and convincing as the music, 'It was a cold September, before the indian summer,' Jones wails across the stomping chorus sweeps, 'That's the thing I remember when she gave me her number.' But given how the emphasis is on tone and scope here, lyrics somewhat blur and are forgiven by how much momentum and drive the music provides. Take Me has less of the emotive appeal and engagement than previous tracks, but there's still a fond connection and means, of which I can recognize, to carry on this familiar social theme flowing. The track comes off perhaps more withdrawn and hazy in regards to its production value, than before, but the way the song bumbles and shudders along in its dry-mouthed percussion and heat-stroked guitars adds an intriguing textural scope to the song even if, as noted, there's less of an engagement with its listener than before.

Catacomb is, (un)fortunately familiar in its palette of energized 4/4 alternate-garage hooks, and so for any hard-core Stereophonics fan who enjoyed the likes of Dakota will recognize this track's 100mph highway-running, windows-open thirst for discovery, even if the discovery, in question, is lacking a little depth and distance. Not that the track doesn't do what it's meant to; driving forth and executing what is a perfectly solid, sturdy thrust of electric guitars and drums. But aside from this signature dish, there's no real creative influx or conviction in appealing to those who want to hear something new and/or something that hasn't been done many a time over (and done better I must admit). I favor then, a track like Roll The Dice more though, given how Jones' less-forceful vocals lend themselves better to the track's stop-start motion. The rowdy mix of guitars, drums and some occasional brass and violin sweeps that  offer themselves in the track's closing part, do give more an insightful narrative to the music, but it still feels incomplete or perhaps safer than the album's opening bold, brave (and thus successful) attempts at music. It's fortunate then that said closing section does broaden the track out into a more interesting horizon that, thanks in part to the building dynamics of guitars and violins alike, conjures a gripping, edge-of-the-seat - perhaps climatic - turning-of-the-page moment to see where it is this album will us to next.

Violins And Tambourines could be the point in the story where the real heights, or perhaps lows, of the narrative make themselves known, the music fairly low-key and consciously-provoking than before. Jones' vocals come off a lot more nakedly vulnerable and crucial to the narrative even if the observations of 'preacher's sermons on the streets' makes the story out to be less excessively honest than what we might have thought. I would have liked to have seen, because of this similarly stern observation, Jones perhaps take more time to address the lonely outsider's stance, the music is so obviously projecting, in lyrical form rather than what is this dreary and dry listing of observations. All it does is give us more reason to focus instead on the music's more rooted affection of acoustic strumming and withheld passing of the titled instruments that do more to paint a narrative that is, for definite, reaching a crucial point in its timeline. And though the track ends on a fairly predictable build-up of louder guitar strums and rhythmically rampant drum hits, it's given credibility with how it refrains from wiping the slate clean of the former strums of acoustics and violins that remain present, but are now a lot less clear and in focus.

One of the interesting moments on this album comes in the shape of the varying degrees of head-bobbing on the track In A Moment. The main lead of a drum synth, that is if it were caked in dust and cobwebs, makes for an appealing front-footed lead for Jones to offer a slightly dazzled perspective of vocals: 'Don't know where you're going/You used to be a star'. The somewhat disjointed uncertainty actually works well for the clashing murmur of groaning guitars that soon follow suit, the three-piece of voice, instrumentation and synths thereafter making for an interesting palette of sound. Though the mix soon dissipates and, sadly, is swallowed up by the regular occurrence of alternate guitar strums and follow-on drum hits, I can't help but feel the slightly bemusing confusion still lingers in the track's own point-of-view projection. As Jones continues, 'Looking in the mirror, I'm talking to myself/Stare at my reflection, and I look like someone else' - though I can't give this passage the credit of being overly detailed or prolonged in its meaning - I feel there's more a connectivity with how baffled the music comes off in its regular swatch of guitars and drums, alongside what is this shadowed reappearing of dusty drum synths and harmonies previous that are haunting in their monk-like hums. No One's Perfect, fittingly like all narratives of this emotional caliber, leads the listener on a merry hopefully-forward closer that doesn't necessarily close the final chapter of this story, as much as it comes to a resounding conclusion in its realization that 'No one's perfect/Tomorrow you'll see...you made a better man of me.' And away from the lyrical realization, Phonics' decide against building the track up or even trying to lift the spirit or mood of its listener up. Instead simply lingering on this weighty utterance of guitar strings and vocals stretching across the tale's dusty, outback atmosphere.

Whether it's the way in which the album is so fixated and intent to let the album flow freely like that of a spun story, or the fact that Jones has admitted to writing a script for a film adaptation alongside the album's recording, that's caused Graffiti On The Train to come off more as a concept album, is still an answer I'm unable to give, and most likely, one I refuse to give. I do feel this is one of Stereophonic's most sequential and smoothly transgressive records to date, and because of it, the themes and subject matters that are on offer, are a lot more effective on an emotional scale. But so too, the musical variances too come to work around the narratives in a way that gives the themes some new sense of life and meaning. But while I'd go as far as to say that the first three tracks on this album are some of the best songs the band have made thus far, I feel there's still a hesitance and a concern, from the band's perspective, on how to give this new sound an album-wide scope and means to come back to. Because of this, there are many an unfilled gap and safety-in-numbers spots in this album, that the instrumentation is that which we've heard many a time previous - thus hindering the narrative from clearly being explored. Nevertheless, this is perhaps the Welsh outfit's best record in well over a decade (that's a fair few albums) and while not perfect, it's definitely a refreshing - and slightly more enriching - diversion from the band's eleven-track brain-storming of forty minute guitar/drum/vocal mixes. And as noted, while there are some clear flaws in creativity, to counteract that, what new ideas the band do offer, are arguably some of the best they've brought forth in their entire career.


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Discovery: Stereophonics - Graffiti On The Train
Stereophonics - Graffiti On The Train
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