Always a Bridesmaid

Stereophonics front man Kelly Jones has been Britpop's bridesmaid--but never its bride--for so long you could hardly blame him for throwing in the towel. Name the first fellow U.K. rock act that comes to mind, and it's likely experienced more in the way of success than the Stereophonics: Oasis, Blur, Radiohead, Travis, Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand. We're not just talking American crossover here, either; Stereophonics albums are regularly savaged in the English music press as mind-numbing exercises in trad-rock routine. In fact, even the band's good reviews arrive as thinly veiled bad reviews. When NME decided that Language. Sex. Violence. Other?, the Stereophonics' latest album, was actually pretty good, it sounded as surprised as if the Smiths had re-formed with Tom Morello in place of Johnny Marr.

So why the gallons of Hatorade? Simple: Stereophonics albums are often mind-numbing exercises in trad-rock routine. If the English love anything, it's the novelty of novelty, something Jones has never offered. Whereas Radiohead stretches the limits of guitar rock as a matter of course and Franz Ferdinand plays giddy dance tunes for boys who like girls who look like a boyfriend you had in February of last year, the Stereophonics write meat-and-potatoes power-trio rock and roll--the kind with clearly demarcated verses and choruses and words about finding your way back home. Consistency is the Stereophonics' thing, which, unless you're talking about canned soup, is about as exciting as, well, canned soup.

But the dirty secret at the heart of the Stereophonics' discography is that Jones is a more-than-capable craftsman of great little rock tunes. After five albums he's written enough of them for a killer greatest-hits set: "Maybe Tomorrow," which brightened up last year's Wicker Park soundtrack; "Step on My Old Size Nines," a sweet reflection on aging; "Have a Nice Day," a wry reflection on disposable culture; "Handbags and Gladrags," which the singer-guitarist didn't write, of course, but which is perfectly suited to his post-Rod Stewart growl. ("Handbags" only increased in worth when the BBC used another version of the tune as The Office's theme song. Is there a better comment to be made on the Stereophonics' workaday reputation?)

Jones hasn't always sat idly by while detractors smeared his name: In "Mr. Writer," a tune from 2001's Just Enough Education to Perform, he famously informed England's smirking rock critics that "I'd like to shoot you all." Yet today he says his feelings have mellowed.

"To me the less awards we get the better, because that's what keeps us hungry," he says on the phone from his hotel room in Los Angeles. "It's never been about the awards anyway. You always see these shows, and you always get the same kind of bands on with the same big albums. And we were never one of those type of bands. We always just got our head down, toured around the world and made great records. When you first start out, when you're 21, [the awards are] what's important. But it's very much not so, because most of the bands that get all that success on their first record, second record, are under so much pressure they never really have a chance to feel good about it. I'm glad that our journey and our music has been very natural and on the increase every record--an upward slope rather than going backward."

About that he's right: Language. Sex. Violence. Other?--the title comes from the parental advisory panel found on the back of DVD packages--is the most accomplished Stereophonics album yet. A tuneful, hard-charging blast of modern rock, it doesn't sound as bogged down in tradition as some of the band's older records. There's a lean, muscular power to the playing, and Jones' songs seem trimmed of their '70s-rock fat, shot up with a crude, darkened swagger instead. You get the sense that if some young unknown band from London had made it, Jones' critics would be applauding its unapologetic crunch, the very inattention to popular trends they usually complain about.

"This record was very reflective of doing a lot of shows," Jones says. "Opening up for people, just doing 45 minutes, bang-bang-bang, grabbing people's attention. The main thing was to get a really raw three-piece-band sound--make it much louder, much faster, much more in-your-face, and have these kind of weird, electronic sonics dropped throughout all of it, which sets all these weird moods."

Language. Sex. is the first album the band has made since the 2003 sacking of drummer Stuart Cable, with whom Jones and bassist Richard Jones formed the band in the mid-'90s. (Kelly Jones and Cable disagreed on the extent of Cable's commitment to the band.) After touring with Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, Jones offered the permanent spot to Javier Weyler, whom he'd met as the in-house assistant at the studio where Jones usually records his demos. "Between making us tea and buying us sandwiches, we found that he was a good shaker player," Jones says of Weyler. "We ended up jamming with him one day, and it just really clicked, you know? I think it was one of those meetings where you play with someone and it felt like it did when I was 18. He's got a great energy and a great style--very trashy, but great ability at the same time."

Weyler's straight-ahead drumming gives the record a bit of what Jones thinks will help them increase their profile in America this go-around. "What's been complicated in the past is that our albums have been kind of varied," he says. "Once you get on one format on the radio with one song, your next single's on a different format, so you're kind of stuck, because then you can't take it to the stations where you've made so much ground. What's good about this record is that it's all alternative radio."

Still, he's quick to add, that's not what the album is about. "I don't make records to be successful," he says. "When I'm making a record, I made it for what I'm actually trying to express." He laughs. "Obviously, afterwards when you're trying to sell it, it's a different situation."

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Mikael Wood