In the interregnum between Madchester and Britpop, The Wonder Stuff were just about the biggest band in British indie. A number one single, top five albums, dozens of magazine covers (including a memorable Kevin Cummins shot of singer Miles Hunt dressed as Lady Miss Kier of Deee-Lite) – the Wonder Stuff were hot stuff. Today, every hyped new band comes from Brooklyn, Bristol, Brighton or Brixton; once upon a time, the provinces got a look in. For a very brief moment, the coolest place in Britain was Stourbridge.
It’s not long into this album before you realise how little has changed sonically for the band in the intervening years. If the guitar sound doesn’t do it (original guitarist Malcolm Treece back in the fold), the plaintive violin will. It’s not Martin “Fiddly” Bell at the bow these days, of course, it’s Hunt’s long term collaborator and partner Erica Nockalls, but its place in the musical palette is the same – folking up the jangly indie guitar.
Feet To The Flames is a strategic opener. In old money, it’s the obvious lead single, a catchy little number whose charms are obvious, for all that the uplifting chorus doesn’t reflect its threatening lyrical content: ‘You held my feet to the flames / And I will never forgive you.’ Don’t Anyone Dare Give A Damn has subtler melodic appeal, but you’d have been eyeing it as a later single off the album. Hunt, it seems, still knows how to craft a pop song and tracklist an album. What would be side two’s opener, Bound also plays to the band’s strengths, with its martial beat, fast strummed chorus, and wistful middle eight. ‘There are those that judge and bear a grudge where nothing is forgiven,’ Hunt sings, almost a riposte to his earlier words.
The band’s moodier side is represented here by Lay Down Your Cards, recalling some of the uglier, darker moments on pre-split album Construction For The Modern Idiot. No Thieves Among Us is a chuggy rocker in the mould of the Stereophonics and is a weak spot. It’s The Little Things also crunches a bit harder than your normal Stuffies track, but more in the vein of New Model Army. Nockalls’ sky-rocketing violin solo is its main selling point.
Something softer is much needed by the time we get to The Guy With The Gift, where a gentle 80s keyboard riff ushers in a world-weary vocal from Hunt (his best of the album) and another welcome dose of Nockalls’ keening violin, before Treece finally gets his moment to shine, shoving the others aside for some solo heroics. Map & Direction sees the album out in similar gentle, slow-build fashion.
Younger readers may scoff that a bunch of lank haired Black Countryites in three-quarter length shorts are what we had up against Nirvana back in the day. Better Being Lucky is unlikely to convince them of the appeal. For contemporaries though, it’s a reassurance that there’s still more to the band than Shiiine On weekenders