Despite their slightly punk-ish inception and seemingly endless supply of terrace anthems, Stereophonics' biggest allure has always been Kelly Jones' remarkable voice. They're also an increasingly frustrating band, too willing to stick to their guns — the production combo of Jones and Jim Lowe is retained here for the fifth album on the trot — rather than experiment with a different array of sounds.
It's not as if they're not capable, either. 2005's 'Language. Sex. Violence. Other' was an unexpectedly dark excursion into light electronica and industrial-tinged drone rock. Disappointingly, its follow up 'Pull The Pin' felt like something of a step back. Their last record, 2013's platinum selling 'Graffiti On The Train' also impressed after another lull in creativity. Integrating a narrative Jones had devised for a screenplay of the same name, it was one of the Welsh group's most consistent efforts.
It's a shame then that their latest, 'Keep The Village Alive', follows this cyclical pattern of diminishing returns. Jones has mentioned in recent interviews that all the material had been written in sessions for their previous record, but you wouldn't be able to tell, lacking the lyrical sharpness and attention to detail that made 'Graffiti On The Train' a revitalising return to form. 'White Lies' sounds like Bon Jovi covering U2 and 'I Wanna Get Lost With You' almost crosses the line into self-parody but the album is held together by a generally strong collection of tracks. Lead single 'C'est La Vie' is an unapologetic slice of Vaccines-ish pop punk, demonstrating a thrilling energy that hasn't been present since their debut. Similarly, 'Fight Or Flight's sleazy rock strut, complemented by Jones' falsetto, recalls the former glory of 'Superman'.
The record manages to capture Stereophonics at their most direct, which does make up for the album's lyrical inefficiencies. 'Song For The Summer' and 'My Hero' are pair of string laden beauties, allowing Jones' voice to flourish. When he does revert to the storytelling of old though, it results in the pick of the bunch. Triumphant closer 'Mr. And Mrs. Smith', details the affair of a couple who "meet every Friday night under different names" and it's a powerful reminder of what the band do best. However, it's difficult to forgive 'Sunny' and it's preposterous chorus: "Sunny, you're so sunny / With no money, it's so funny / Who needs money, it's so sunny" (No, really).
If you already hated everything about the band then mind with extreme caution, their ninth effort is unlikely to sway you. For 'Phonics fans and the already converted, a few missteps aside, there's plenty here to savour. Like a lot of their back catalogue, 'Keep The Village Alive' is an enjoyable and solid, if unadventurous rock record anchored, as always, by that tremendous voice.
Words: Luke Winstanley
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