A six CD re-issue of the first two Stereophonics albums. Six! These are truly the end times. Six CDs is one more than the boxset which covers The Jam’s entire studio output. Nothing says 'we’re all doomed' like a six CD re-issue for a pair of albums that are barely 10 years old. Nothing says 'unacceptable hubris' like a six CD re-issue for a band that never had illusions of creating era-defining artistic statements. Nothing says 'the music industry is a confused and senile old man' like a release which features the songs ‘A Thousand Trees’ and ‘Local Boy In The Photograph’ three times each. SIX CDs!
It’s difficult to imagine what the market is for the 2CD deluxe editions of these albums, let alone the limited edition super deluxe 3CD boxsets. Around £10 buys you two discs and the nefarious 'Deluxe Edition' glazed border around a cheap plastic sleeve. Three discs will set you back £27, but for that you do get a lovely box, replicas of Kelly Jones’ notebooks and something called artcards. Wayne Rooney has a Stereophonics tattoo and some spare pocket money now. I’d imagine he’s already bought five copies of each. Otherwise – who is this for? The bonus discs cover b-sides and rarities, but surely any hardcore ’phonics fan that wants ‘A Thousand Trees’ retread ‘Carrot Cake And Wine’ (a b-side to, er, ‘A Thousand Trees’) or an accomplished cover of Neil Young’s ‘The Old Laughing Lady’ (b-side to ‘I Wouldn’t Believe Your Radio’) snatched them online aeons ago?
I am not one of those hardcore fans, so listening to four discs of b-sides, demos, live performances, session tracks and acoustic versions was a slog. When were b-sides and rarities by bands you’re not hugely keen on ever any different? The quality is uniformly and unsurprisingly weaker than the songs that made the albums. Despite my indifference it would be churlish to deny that the Stereophonics meant a lot to a lot of people, especially around the time of these first two albums. Emerging during the Britpop comedown years, they were inaccurately lumped in with that genre purely for being almost British. Listening to them in 2010 their influences were transparently the classic and pub rock of the Seventies and second-tier grunge, a long way from the purely red white and blue palate of Gallagher, Albarn and Cocker. Too melodically aware to be real rockers and too earnest to be indie, the Stereophonics at this stage made blokecore.
Like Ash’s 1977, Word Gets Around is a teenage album. It’s got several memorable hits and drips with ‘I can’t believe we’re actually making an album!’ exuberance. Kelly Jones sells his choruses with charm and vigour from the studiously madcap (“There’s more life, more life, more liiiife-ah in a tramp’s vest”) to the silly and stoned (“It only takes one tree to make a thousand matches / only takes one match to burn a thousand trees.”) ‘Local Boy In The Photograph’ showcases his legitimately fantastic voice, gravelly and yearning like a turbo-powered Rod Steward at the apex of the song: “The clocks go back rrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaailllwayy traaaaaaaackkkk!". This sits at the forefront of the mix throughout the album and the music behind is almost incidental, Stuart Cable providing steady drums and Richard 'no relation' Jones barely audible on bass.
Word Gets Around is a series of character studies observed in the band’s hometown of Cwmaman, but 'character' and 'study' are kind words to apply to a song like ‘Traffic’, an awful GCSE attempt at kitchen sink drama. The generalisations and drab clichés rankle, especially as they are sung with such oblivious conviction. I don’t doubt Jones’ sincerity, or the 'authenticity' of his reference points, but when they’re rattled off in litany like on ‘A Thousand Trees’ (“schoolyard, scrap yard, chip shop, phone box, pool hall, shoe store”) it’s hard not see it as a superficial and somewhat cynical attempt to connect with an imagined audience. (6)
Suspect lyrics are rarely a dealbreaker within the context of singalong rock songs, but there’s no noticeable improvement on 1999’s Performance And Cocktails. ‘Roll Up And Shine’ opens their second album and the focus has changed: “Roll out the shock parade / freefalling from a stage / performance and cocktails”. Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Cwmaman anymore. Again and again Jones’ serviceable songs are let down by clumsy lines, like the bartender and the thief that “met in a church, a night to remember / robbing the grave of bodies dismembered”. Hi, Yoda.
Again, it’s not the end of the world if the songs remain robust but by this point there’s a growing suspicion that Jones was taking himself Quite Seriously, Actually which rather took the fun out of the band. His voice, never subtle, is better suited to the jollity of Word Gets Around, here it bludgeons the songs. The pensive verse of ‘Just Looking’ makes an uncomfortable lurch into its bellowed chorus, Jones’ sledgehammer roar obliterating any hint of nuance. It’s all downhill from ‘Is Yesterday Tomorrow Today?’, which begins a sorry-faced run of five grown-up ballads and a lumbering mid-paced rocker to close out the album: ‘Plastic California’. Come on. That’s a title so offensively hackneyed that I’m going to pretend the song’s an instrumental. (5)
Somewhere along the line the Stereophonics became an easy target and an easy band to dislike, which is odd given how unpretentiously Kelly Jones tends to come across (despite the occasional transgression). Judged in isolation, their first two albums are likable and grating in almost equal measure. With hindsight we can contextualise them properly as an adept and energetic rock band that were strangely apart from their time. Not bad, but neither interesting nor overlooked enough to justify the implied reverence of a six CD Limited Edition Super Mega Happy Deluxe Bonus Edition re-issue.