Once memorably described as the UK’s Bon Jovi, in that the Welsh band embrace their blue-collar fan base and espouse a working-class ethos through small-town vignettes and everyman narratives, Sterephonics’ ninth album – presented as Volume II of 2013’s Graffiti On The Train – is a familiar face-off between the introspective and the grandiose.
While equally capable of breezy pop-rock fizz with whale-sized hooks and a sparser balladic intimacy, there’s no escaping the fact a thick seam of plod and stodge pads the band’s catalogue like builder’s foam. The same is largely true here, though the mid-tempo water-treaders are pushed into a corner and unlike some contemporaries (Noel Gallagher), at least Kelly Jones is willing to step towards the edges of his comfort zone. The more successful material reflects this, best exemplified on Fight Or Flight, featuring some suitably widescreen orchestration by Bond arranger David Arnold.
Off the bat, Jones hits an eerie falsetto over a Massive Attack-style piano riff, unsettling and ominous, before morphing into the sort of epic anthem the aforementioned Gallagher used to write in his sleep. Sticking with the anthemic, the traditionally strongest second track, White Lies, manages to invoke U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name, Coldplay and Def Leppard in just under four minutes. It’s an instant classic – lush, in both the Welsh and usual meanings of the word.
The band’s more insular, acoustic-driven aspect is represented by a sweetly old fashioned, Neil Hannonesque piece of chamber pop – Song For The Summer, and Into The World; a chiming slice of melancholy finding Jones so far up the fretboard his guitar sounds like a harp.
Elsewhere, a light flirtation with 50s rock’n’roll (single C’est La Vie), and a nod towards the funky (Sing Little Sister) jar somewhat in comparison. Lyrically, Jones proudly upholds the oral tradition, thus the album’s title, but suffers from that perennial problem; the further up the food chain you get, the greater the disconnect to the everyday lives you are chronicling. The local becomes global, dealing in universal themes so generic as to be almost rendered as platitudes. Local Boy In The Photograph seems a long time ago.
Occupational hazards aside however, this is certainly the band’s strongest in recent memory, and what it might lack in edge or novelty is well countered by craft and assurance.