Grumpy traditionalists grow their hair and rock the retro racket
Few bands divide critics and public quite as sharply as Stereophonics. To vast swathes of Britain and beyond, Kelly Jones is a populist rock chronicler in the Noel Gallagher mode. But to many rock hacks, he is little better than a child molester. The narrow focus of his songwriting muse, coupled with his wrong-headed attacks on rival bands with creative ambitions outside woefully dated ideals of classic rock, certainly do him no favours. Personally I can live without both Kelly’s version of “authenticity” and that of his dissenters – a pox on both their houses – but his latest audacious rebirth as a long-haired soul shouter on this, the South Wales trio’s fourth album, is probably going to earn him plenty more enemies.
Which is ironic, because ‘You Gotta Go There To Come Back’ is probably the most perversely, accidentally hip Stereophonics album to date. If raw headbanger blues is the mood of the moment, this album sucks long and hard on the retro-garage zeitgeist. Produced by the ‘Phonics frontman himself, essentially it’s a blues-rock opus in the classic early ’70s mould, the logical end point for Kelly’s Rod Stewartoid growl and old-school tunesmith values. Never before has Jones written so many references to sex and drugs, all shot through with a self-consciously Americanised vocabulary. Kelly-haters will leap on this as stilted, stylised and slavishly old-fashioned, of course. Which it is, but no more so than the White Stripes and their legions of unfathomably overpraised imitators.
The Stereophonics now wear their love of bands like Led Zeppelin, Free and The Faces as loud and shameless pastiche. From the amped-up, fire-breathing riff-snorter ‘Help Me (She’s Out Of Her Mind)’ and the irresistible glam-metal swagger of new single ‘Madame Helga’ right up to the penultimate crotch-grabber ‘High As The Ceiling’, the prevailing mood here is one of mojo-rising priapism and deep-fried bluesology. Woo yeah, baby.
But there is also has a deep streak of sadness to these 13 tunes. Kelly must have been suffering love-life turbulence when he vented all this bitter self-pity about ex-partners and ruined romances, most tenderly in wistful relationship post-mortems like ‘Rainbows And Pots Of Gold’ and ‘Since I Told You It’s Over’. But true to bluesman mythology, Kelly is soon laying blame on the no-good women who lie through their teeth, empty your wallet and sleep around behind your back. On ‘Getaway,’ ‘You Stole My Money Honey’ and the wasted-sounding epic ‘I’m Alright’, woozy melancholy is tempered with this hackneyed view of laydeez as Eve-like temptresses who cheat innocent men out of Paradise. Sure, it’s a convention, but feminism has made *some* advances since Rod’s ‘Maggie May’, surely?
‘You Gotta Go There To Come Back’ will inevitably invite comparison with Kelly’s mates the Black Crowes, or even one-trick ponies like Reef. The difference is, every single one of these gravel-throated cliches will be memorised and screamed in unison by arenas full of people come November. Every one of these gigantically obvious riffs will excite mass fervour and frenzy, much like Oasis still do on a good night. Because this is ultimately a party album in that caveman rock’n’roll sense that renders highbrow critical sniping redundant. It’s neither exhilarating nor challenging, but it is a solid and energetic work, imbued with an unambiguous love of old-time rock. Listen without prejudice.