Remember all the way back to 2005? Guitar pop sounded fresh again, in a way that it hadn’t for quite some time. Great debut records were springing forth from bands on both sides of the Atlantic. Kaiser Chiefs, The Bravery, Maxïmo Park, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Bloc Party, and Middlesex, England’s Hard-Fi were all part of a revolution that seems to be fizzling already, even though it just began. The best of these acts have released albums this year that are almost as good as their first efforts. So, in a way, I suppose it’s a victory for Hard-Fi that their sophomore CD, Once Upon a Time in the West, is just a notch below their very good debut, Stars of CCTV (my PopMatters review).
My biggest beef with the new album is a complaint I hate to make and one, which I think, is used far too frequently. It’s over-produced. Now, I happen to be a big fan of big production, but only when it makes for an overall improvement over the little budget option. Hard-Fi recorded Stars of CCTV on their own, renting space in a warehouse and plugging into a PC. While lots of artists make music that way nowadays, few such LPs hit #1 on the UK charts and go double platinum. Was the band really trying to shoot higher? Regardless of motivation, the credits for production, mixing, guest instrumentalists, and so on comprise the majority of the liner notes for Once Upon a Time in the West.
Really, though, aside from a little extra sheen, not much has changed for Hard-Fi in the past two years. Most of the band’s contemporaries adopted a harder edge for the second albums, but Hard-Fi have stuck to what worked for them last time around. Take the scrappy, reggae-tinged, new wavy rock of late-era Clash and then pump up that sound with the arena-sized anthems of Oasis-style Britpop. “I Shall Overcome” encapsulates this formula perfectly, as Augustus Pablo-vian melodica melodies in the verses give way to surging power chords on the choruses. It’s a terrific combo, and the song is a winner.
Lead single “Suburban Knights” works a similar vein, only with maybe a little more muscle than charm. “Watch Me Fall Apart” is another highlight, using the orchestral-synth melodrama of Pet Shop Boys behind Richard Archer’s resigned and bitter vocals. “I Close My Eyes” is the biggest leap forward for the band, revealing a group capable of rocking with loose swagger one second and then falling into a tight arrangement of vocal harmonies the next. “Television” is a fun track, but it’s so greatly indebted to London Calling-period Clash that I would swear Hard-Fi ripped ‘em off … except I can’t actually find the evidence to support this little theory of mine. Oh, you win this time, Archer. But I’m watching you pal.
“Can’t Get Along (Without You)” sounds like the Jam with too much extra stuff going on. Lightly bobbing along, “Help Me Please”, on the other hand, is guilty only of being boring. In fact, the latter half of the album is generally weaker. Happily, “We Need Love”, with its sexy bass pulse, keeps the groove alive. But then its follow-up track, the overblown “Little Angel”, comes charging in like a water buffalo on steroids and kills the mood. Closing track “The King” is the CD’s ballad, but its sappy strings can’t hold a candle to CCTV‘s more spare and heartfelt “Move on Now”.
It’s been said many times before, but less is often more. It’s an axiom that, ironically, bears repeating. (The more you hear it, the more likely you might be to opt for less instead of more, thereby yielding more rather than less.) Hard-Fi probably felt invincible after their deserved success with Stars of CCTV. Not surprisingly, they shot for the moon on album number two.
Some of the tracks here are excellent and match the group’s earlier efforts, but a fair-sized chunk of the songs aren’t quite as good as what their debut offered, and these tracks certainly aren’t bolstered by the heavy arrangements and slick production given to them. Still, the album’s strong first half and the great appeal of Richard Archer’s voice nudge Once Upon a Time in the West past the midline of the bell curve. Hey, for a sophomore album released in 2007, above average is pretty darn good.