Stereophonics have always had a sound more fit for stadium rock than indie-club, and while they have achieved that level of success in their native U.K. (five straight #1 records), such out-and-out success in the States has proved more elusive, and thus they often get knee-jerk codified as ‘alternative’ and even ‘indie’, like many other big-in-the-U.K. acts (when in fact they were the first act signed by Richard Branson’s V2 imprint, his successor to Virgin, which has since been purchased by major imprint EMI). 2007’s Pull the Pin (QRO review) reached for the golden ring with a straighter, heavier tinge (after lead singer/frontman Kelly Jones got his acoustics out on his solo record – QRO review), not as ambitious as previous efforts, perhaps, but effective. After that and last year’s A Decade In the Sun: The Best of Stereophonics, Keep Calm and Carry On actually tries many more things, but gets away a bit from what makes Stereophonics great.
Not that Keep On is a ‘bad’ album. The epic yet intimate emotional grandeur, exemplified best in Kelly Jones’ vocals, is still there throughout the record. It’s just that, whereas Pull the Pin stuck to the basics, Keep Calm tries a little too hard in too many directions. “Beerbottle” could have been another excellent stripped epic of intimacy, but is marred by a stripped tech beat, while the party-rock of the following “Trouble” too much effort to party. The sly-rock and psych-shine elements to “I Got Your Number” and “Wonder” take away from the strong rhythms, and the funk-soul to penultimate “Stuck In a Rut” is certainly out of place – though not out there; on another record, it would have been a forgivable experiment stuck in the least desirable slot on the track list.
However, the core strengths of Stereophonics are still in place; indeed, Keep Calm is a record that rather benefits from less-closer scrutiny – and that’s not the backhanded compliment it sounds like. When not applying the finer eye so often used to examine alternative music, and just enjoying Stereophonics’ sound, those core strengths carry from song to song. Opener “She’s Alright” has a strong road-press, with a bit of grit, a bit of dance, while the following “Innocent” is more upbeat and catchy – fittingly, it’s the first single. Upcoming second single “Could You Be the One?” has nice emotional grandeur (though that single title was already gotten to by Hüsker Dü – QRO spotlight on). There’s a sadder sway and loss to “100mph”, and closer “Show Me How” makes a fine piano-sad wide number. The wistful-rock “Uppercut” maybe best retains Stereophonics attributes, and if the subsequent “Live ‘n’ Love” is forgettable like recent big-rock U2 (QRO album review), that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.
After making #1 in the U.K. with their last five studio releases (only 1997 debut LP, Word Gets Around, didn’t make it to the top, at ‘only’ #6), and even reaching #2 with greatest hits A Decade In the Sun, Keep Calm failed to break the Top Ten, peaking at #11. The start-of-the-second decade mid-life attempted reinvention hits a lot of bands (think of U2’s electro-restart at the start of the nineties), and Keep Calm and Carry On is hardly the worst of those, thanks to the band’s strong base – but one can’t help but also wish that Stereophonics had actually kept calm and carried on with what makes them great.
MP3 Stream: “Uppercut”