The Hard Road, the sophomore album from Australia’s premier hip hop outfit Hilltop Hoods, won the J Award for 2006—a relatively new award for best Australian album of the year (the inaugural winner, in 2005, was Wolfmother) given out by Triple J, the national youth radio network. Though it’s debatable The Hard Road should have won over stellar efforts from Augie March and Gotye (and Dappled Cities’ stunning Granddance, which didn’t even get a nomination), as a triumph for Aussie hip hop in the commercial sphere the album has had no equal. It’s not surprising, then, that the group should want to capitalize on this new-found prominence—but instead of the almost-obligatory remix album, we get a re-hash of the entire album, re-recorded with new arrangements with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
The material’s almost identical to the original—a few new guest spots, a new verse here and there, and “Roll On Up”, an adequate if uninspiring bonus track—but it’s true that the orchestral arrangements give the Hoods’ barbecue hip hop more bite. The group re-recorded the vocals, and seem more relaxed in their delivery throughout. “Stopping All Stations”, for example, is transformed from a venomous rant against a society with no regard for the elderly and disenfranchised to more of a lament; for the first time, you notice the story’s tragedy. The Hoods have always had a strong political conscience—it’s well appreciated in this format, where the words themselves, rather than the passionate delivery, take centre stage.
“Conversations with a Speakeasy”, a single on The Hard Road, has been the focus of the radio play for this version as well, and the track illustrates how well the Hoods’ songs can stand up to repeat airwave bombardment. A new contribution from U.S. freestyler Okwerdz changes the mood, as the swirling string accompaniment and interweaving jazz brass/saxophone create an easy 1920s vibe. The chorus is pitched lower in the voice, sliding down as if a literal embodiment of the refrain “the universal language of relaxation”.
In its original work (and in fact on the group’s debut, as well), simple melodic ideas played out on flute or the treble range of a keyboard propel the singles to sing-along status. Here, with a fuller orchestral arrangement courtesy of Jamie Messenger, musically the songs don’t sound as flimsy or disposable. Of course, the group aren’t the first to incorporate orchestral backing as an accompaniment to their rhymes—wasn’t that what made Late Registration a critical love-fest?—but the verses (and the accents) are sufficiently distinctive that there is little obvious comparison between the two albums. It’s difficult to say The Hard Road: Restrung is a better album than The Hard Road, they’re so similar—but its altered textures and slightly more relaxed delivery will ensure that, for fans of the original at least, there’s a sufficiently different feel to enable a second discovery of the album’s undoubted strengths.