Just Who Are the Five O'Clock Heroes?
If you live in America, there is a chance that you’ve never heard of the Five O’Clock Heroes, even though they’re based out of New York City. Their first two albums, 2006’s Bend to the Breaks and 2008’s Speak Your Language, were put out only in Europe. However, all this is about to change with the release of their third offering, Different Times, as it will be the first occasion that anything in their catalogue will be in print on their home turf. With Different Times, you get a sense of a foursome who are aiming high, as they not only honed their sound and the choice of material while performing on the road, but they also went into the studio for a five-day stretch with noted Grammy-award winning producer and engineer Gus Oberg, who previously helmed efforts by the Strokes and Bloc Party. The choice of producer is not a matter of coincidence. The Five O’Clock Heroes definitely share a New Wave retro sort of kinship with the aforementioned bands. However, and this might seem paradoxical, the group has not been influenced one iota by any sort of trend in popular music postdating, say, 1983.
The band takes its name from the song “Just Who Is the Five O’Clock Hero?” by the Jam. The track appeared on that band’s final, and perhaps most critically reviled, album, 1982’s The Gift, an effort that saw the trio of mod revivalists moving into soul and funk territory, a style that was at odds with its previous post-punk sound. It may seem strange that the Five O’Clock Heroes would appropriate their name from something that isn’t exactly canon-worthy from a lauded British band, though this ragtag quartet of heroes seems to not have had a lot of luck with the critics themselves, either, if a review of the previous Speak Your Language on The Line of Best Fit is to be believed: “Sadly, it seems as though the…band have barely anything original to say; all they seem to do is reiterate and regurgitate the musical styles and sounds of their predecessors,” reviewer Amy Pay noted. “If it’s unique and influential music icons that you want to hear, you’d be better off listening to the stars Five O’Clock Heroes robbed their sounds from than an album by this second rate band.” Ouch!
The Five O’Clock Heroes haven’t really learned anything from that scathing review, as Different Times is an amalgam of styles ranging from Joe Jackson to Dexys Midnight Runners to early Elvis Costello. It is, however, not bad. Though it lacks a certain consistency, and while many of the songs are cookie-cutter sound-alikes of groups culled from the early 1980s, the album has a sort of brisk charm to it. There’s a palpable sense of tightness, of a band locked in a groove, shooting for the heavens. That feeling is evident on the album opener, the five-minute-plus “Diplomat”, which starts out as a lush, acoustic guitar ballad with a haunting keyboard melody, something that’s more akin to the cappuccino-flavoured style of Paul Weller’s post-Jam band, the Style Council, or maybe even Spandau Ballet. That goes on for about a minute. Then expansive, echo-laden, reverb-heavy drums kick in, transforming the track into a jittery and paranoid sounding song that sounds like Haircut 100 having a bad hair day.
The first preview track from the album, “Rough Boys”, continues the style, at least initially. An icy bass line introduces the song, before it transforms into a bright and bouncy piece of buoyancy that could be fashionable as wallpaper in the interior of some retro-flavoured dance club. What should have been the introductory song from Different Times awaits a little later on in the form of “The Cut”, which blends New Order’s “Blue Monday” with a chorus lifted from early ‘80s girl group Bananarama. It’s a giddy and angular song, one that will get caught in your cranium like a bad case of sonic Ebola. Alas, the momentum is killed a bit by what follows, “Boys Not Girls”. It’s an all-out two-tone ska-flavoured tune ripped from the page of the Specials, with a somewhat unfortunate lyrical conceit about a guy pursuing a lass who tells all of her girlfriends that he’s a homosexual. It’s not horrible, and there’s a certain amount of embarrassing infectiousness to it, but it really sticks out like a sore thumb in the sequencing.
Opening up the second half of the record is “City of Lights”, which has native British singer Antony Ellis striking a particularly Joe Jackson-like pose in a jangly, up-tempo track that lifts the album momentarily out of its ‘80s-obsessiveness. The song sounds particularly like Bloc Party, which makes it the least backwards-looking and most contemporary thing on the LP. “Postcard”, which follows, is a stab at rewriting the Jam’s “Carnation”, though it has a more laid-back, acoustic feel to it, and is bolstered by some soulful vibes. “I Need You Around” is much more jive-esque, almost sounding pseudo-Squeeze-like, with a jazzy saxophone muscling its way into the mix. “Just a Friend of Mine”, which is the final destination of this record, could be considered a bit of a sequel in mood, except the band trades in its zoot suits for something a bit more mod. Once again, the Five O’Clock Heroes continue their infatuation with the Jam, though their sound smoothes away the harsh edges.
While Different Times has a whiff of indie hipster caché associated with it, and it certainly might be the soundtrack for club kids born in the 1980s, it does have a few specific weaknesses despite its toe-tapping appeal. For one, the second half seems rather unspectacular compared to what came before it. And, as mentioned earlier, “Boys Not Girls” seems to have been teleported in from another record altogether. The album, as well, doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny upon multiple plays, despite its anthemic nature; it could have certainly done with a few more songs like “City of Lights”, which at least show a marked attempt to be somewhat modern. However, Different Times does have a bevy of hook-laden songs that are charming, even though they are seemingly lifted from other sources, an approach that would have served Five O’Clock Heroes better if they took elements of a sound and blended it into their own unique sonic stew. For that, Different Times is not a horrible record—there’s a definite sense of urgency, of a band trying to strike it big here. Still, Different Times might have been even more engaging if it did, indeed, come out in a very different time. Say, 1983.