“Dakota” has a curious reputation. A lot of music fans I know see it as Stereophonics’ best song. That in itself is hardly unusual. But many of those people also see it as the band’s only good song. Which is odder – these guys have eight UK No.1 albums and twenty Top 20 singles; they are by any definition a massive band here, one of the biggest of their era. The fact almost nobody I know has a good word for them shows that some of the old tribalism of British music still lingered. Or that Stereophonics really were unusually bad, even for a 90s-00s UK rock group. Or both.

So before we ask how “Dakota” caught on outside Stereophonics’ regular audience – a pretty entrenched one, eight years and five albums in – it’s worth looking at what they usually did. If you want to hear a Stereophonics song that isn’t “Dakota”, you’re best off with their proper debut single, “Local Boy In The Photograph”, Kelly Jones singing about a kid who died by suicide and other lives going on after he left them. It’s earnest and heartfelt and you can hear why people responded to it.

There’s the germ of something interesting here – an idea of kitchen-sink rock, writing directly but artfully about the real lives of kids in post-industrial Britain. You can see why it would work – and in a few months we’ll see it working a lot better. But there’s a tension even in early Stereophonics between that idea and the grimly basic musical tools the band have at hand to realise it. The group were like the post-Richey Manics, but for people who didn’t like any of that funny post-punk stuff, or hip-hop, or even glam. Whatever sensitivity Kelly Jones had as a writer didn’t transfer to his singing, a raspy rock bellow as tender as a sandpaper handjob. And it didn’t translate to his band, who sound like they considered meat and potatoes decadent luxuries.

Something had to give, and it was the songwriting. Maybe there are flashes of insight and empathy from Jones later on – I admit I wouldn’t know – but what I did hear made it sound unlikely. “Have A Nice Day”, a garbled account of a San Francisco cabbie who doesn’t like tourists, has one of the most naggingly moronic choruses this side of “The Birdie Song”. Their version of “Handbags And Gladrags” is the exact rock equivalent of an Atomic Kitten cover. Their lyrics scanned like William McGonagall poems (“I stood where Oswald took his shot / In my opinion there’s a bigger plot”).

Critics were, it’s fair to say, underwhelmed. That prompted the monster whinge of 2000’s “Mr Writer”, a broadside against the rock press to which its targets reacted with predictable delight. Even more of a dirge than usual, “Mr Writer” was deliciously embarrassing, a gift-wrapped cautionary tale for ego-pricked rockstars. Not that the band’s fans saw anything wrong with it – it went Top 5 and the album hit No.1 again, cementing a Mexican standoff between the sneering metropolitan hipsters and the forces of good honest Britrock.

Which makes “Dakota” even more remarkable – a Stereophonics record getting flowers not just from Q but from Popjustice?? But you can genuinely hear why – Kelly Jones’ experiment in motorik synthpop really does sound like nothing the band had done before, and while they backed rapidly away from this bold new pop direction it’s proof that even the most dead-end predictable of bands could potentially surprise. Noel Gallagher wrote to congratulate them on their first No.1 – “but you used a fucking synthesiser!” he added.

Now, sad to say, there’s a gap between “the best Stereophonics record by a mile” and “a pop classic”. “Dakota” is good but it isn’t great – once the music has announced the song’s approach it doesn’t develop much, and the dynamics are left to Jones’ singing, which means the rousing bridge (“You make me FEEL like the one”) is a blunt instrument and the “I don’t know where..” chorus sounds strained. But even if Jones still isn’t pleasant to listen to, the grain of his voice works against the ripples of the music – he’s not just one bludgeon among many any more. There’s a similar effect and similar dynamics on a later song, Future Islands’ “Seconds (Waiting On You)”, whose wide acclaim confirms Kelly Jones was onto something here.

In fact, what’s impressive about “Dakota” is how it turns Jones’ weaknesses around, just this once. All his usual tics are here, the things which make his songs read like first drafts – the scene-setting banality (“wake up call coffee and juice”), the vagueness (“think it was June”) but in this song, against this setting, they work as a way to evoke the bittersweet memorious haze he’s writing about. “Drinkin’ with you / When drinkin’ was new” is actually, dammit, poignant. It’s a combination of the right topic, the right mood, and the right music to make the band’s approach work. But in that it’s naturally a one-off. This isn’t just the best song Stereophonics made, it’s the best song they could ever have made.

Score: 6

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