But when you stop looking and start listening, this place does have something to offer the average American. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Catatonia. Super Furry Animals. All bands that emerged from Wales in the ’90s and carved a decent niche for themselves in the world of Britpop.
Yet they all took a backseat in terms of both musicianship and popular following as soon as Stereophonics and the Manic Street Preachers entered the picture, for these are bands that have not only impacted the British indie scene, but have made waves around the world with their uncompromising brands of rock ‘n’roll.
Stereophonics’ third LP, “Just Enough Education to Perform” finds them picking up precisely where they left off with 1999’s “Performance & Cocktails.” Heart-throb Kelly Jones’ vocals still sound as though he knocked a few back at the corner pub and smoked a pack before he entered the studio. Richard Jones and Stuart Cable’s rhythm section sounds so tight that one would think they share some sort of supernatural mental connection.
When I had the opportunity to see the band live toward the end of their last tour, Jones filled his inter-song banter with quips about American lifestyle. Since then, however, he seems to have embraced, or at least accepted, Americana as a part of his songwriting. In “Nice to Be Out,” he sings, “There was Dallas too, the library/ The place where they shot Kennedy/ We stood where Oswald took his shot/ In my opinion there’s a bigger plot.” Not only does the production sound strangely like what one would expect from the next Foo Fighters’ record, but now Jones is making insipid political statements steeped in American history.
In fact, his lyrics are disappointingly forced and uninspired throughout. In “Mr. Writer,” his attack on critics, he croons, “Are you so lonely?/ Don’t even know me/ But you’d like to stone me.” “Rooftop” finds Jones telling yet another tired tale, that of a man considering suicide atop a building.
Though Jones’ lyrics about the banal have lost their charm, this record is still musically top notch. The guitar riff that propels “Vegas Two Times” is classic and will bury itself in your head indefinitely. Bob Dylan’s guest harmonica on “Step on My Old Size Nines” fits perfectly over Jones’ acoustic strum. And the prodding, but somehow ferocious, drum track on “Watch Them Fly Sundays” makes me want to dust off the old kit in my basement and start pounding away.
I feel compelled to question the future of this band, however, if they don’t get more adventurous on their subsequent albums. There’s only so many times you can revel in Jones’ superior voice when his lyrics make you grimace. Likewise, there’s only so many times you can smile at the beauty of a good arrangement when you feel like you’ve heard it a thousand times before.
Stereophonics have undoubtedly learned a lot from their Welsh musical ancestors, The Manic Street Preachers. Yet after hearing the Manics’ latest effort, I get the feeling that Stereophonics could use one more lesson. “Know Your Enemy,” the Manics’ sixth album (and third without eccentric guitarist Richey Edwards), is quite simply brilliant.
Nevermind that they can’t seem to pick up a following outside of the U.K. Nevermind that their history would make the most entertaining (read: tragic) “VH1 Behind the Music” ever. Nevermind the pretension that seems to constantly envelope frontman James Dean Bradfield. This band is, as Richey Edwards was wont to carve into his forearm with a razor blade on stage, “4 REAL.”
“Know Your Enemy” finds the Manics displaying a little bit of everything. They’re still making obscure literary and political references. We get the sense that bassist and chief songwriter Nicky Wire is saying something very important in “Miss Europa Disco Dancer” and “My Guernica” but, regardless of whether or not we’re inclined to do some research, the songs are pure genius.
They begin with the fast and furious “Found That Soul,” which is reminiscent of their early punk days. Bradfield screams, there’s a little hint of a heavy metal riff, and his lyrics (“I exist in a place, a self-made vacuum”) are filled with self-deprecation and anguish. This is followed, however, with one of Bradfield’s rare original lyrics, the beautiful love song “Ocean Spray.” To hear him pleading, “Oh, please stay awake/And then we can drink some ocean spray” attests better than anything else to the diversity of this band.
From there, we are given a stunning bit of Beach Boys-inspired harmonies on “So Why So Sad.” The record closes with more political ranting in “Baby Elian” and “Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children,” featuring more punk rock attitude packaged into three minutes than most bands achieve in their lifetime.
The rumors about the end of The Manic Street Preachers have been circulating for at least half their career. But when Bradfield left the stage after a show on their last U.S. tour with the typical “We’ll see you all soon” farewell, I believed him. After finding myself completely unable to remove “Know Your Enemy” from my CD tray, however, I’m not sure if that was just my refusing to believe that any band that could produce something of this quality would ever stop.