It may not be fair to call Hard Times Are in Fashion a political album. While its nervy pop songs are very much products of the current post-election depression, Koufax is more concerned with confronting a nation’s mass apathy than outlining a revolution. “This is the age of no feeling,” Robert Suchan laments, disappointment and frustration ripening his voice, in the piano-bangin’ opener “Why Bother at All”. If Suchan and his band are serving up a rallying cry, it’s a rather simple one: stop feeling sorry about the state of things and nix the couch potato indifference. And furthermore, when determinism loses to lethargy, the consequences may become an indefinite reality: “You really do look terrible,” Suchan admits in “Back and Forth”, adding, “That’s all right, you wear it well.”
On this, its fourth studio record, Koufax looks to put an end to the Battle of Who Could Care Less—appropriate, since the band boasts the barrelhouse piano bounce of Ben Folds Five injected with the anxiety of contemporaries like Hot Hot Heat and the Strokes. Hard Times Are in Fashion is quite an ambitious record, not just in terms of its subject matter, but in its delivery. Many of its songs are epics disguised as three-minute pop tunes, big, sweeping gestures that align the band’s post-emo rock to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”-inspired vamps (“Trouble Will Find You”), mid-tempo guitar-driven extravagances (“Five Years of Madness”), and the inevitable gratuitous misstep (“Stephen James”). Even when songs like the latter are far from perfect, Koufax delivers them with sincerity completely intact, an unmistakable flair for the dramatic concealed in its back pocket. Suchan’s voice only ups that aspect; it’s colicky, an acquired taste like the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, only more brutal.
Suchan’s a deft lyricist when he wants to be. For every bum line (the repeated “It’s the last time we’re telling yous / We’re not fucking around” is just overwrought), there’s a wiser play on words: “Your clever kid cash register tricks don’t add up to much,” he commands in “Trouble Will Find You”. Suchan doesn’t necessarily betray his targets by name, so even this warning of imminent karma could be directed at either a figure as public as the president or private as a neighbor.
Pedal steel virtuoso Eric Heywood (Richard Buckner, Son Volt) joins the band for a handful of tracks, and it’s a nice addition. Heywood’s aching playing crinkles the edges of Koufax’s rich antagonism, offering up some of the album’s better moments, like the beautiful heartbreaker “Isabelle” and “Get Us Sober”, a fatalist’s tale wrapped in ‘70s California pop. Steady, appealing production aside, Hard Times Are in Fashion will appeal to those who like clouds hovering over their buoyant indie pop. Just like the bummed-out landscape it surveys, Koufax maintains its Sisyphean burden throughout the record, perhaps offering a simple, woeful explanation to the problems indicated by recent political records like Green Day’s American Idiot and Steve Earle’s The Revolution Starts Now.
But mostly, Hard Times Are in Fashion documents the weary sights promoted by indefinite defeat, suggesting that a change in outlook precipitates a change in futures. The title of “A Sad Man’s Face” alone sums it up nicely, but the song’s dank cabaret intensity says it better, building to a climax as hardened as its lyrical catch: “Years and years of hard living / And you’re stuck with bitter opinions”. Still, what can one band from Kansas do? Maybe just ride it out in disguise, if you take “Colour Us Canadian” at face value: “We’d call ourselves Canadian / Anything but American”.