Review Summary: The album title is a cryptic clue of Hard-Fi’s new direction: Killer S(ounds).
Whether it was a case of “wrong place” or “wrong time”, one can’t help but feel a little for Hard-Fi. The English outfit had built up significant momentum with the release of their successful debut LP ‘Stars of CCTV’ in mid-2005. The album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and on its way to having one million copies sold, with no less than five singles entering the U.K Top 20 charts. More than that, it was a damn fine collection of tunes with the quartet showcasing a diverse range of musical styles and some authentically relatable working class storytelling in amongst their pleasingly unorthodox catchiness. Yet, all the while, there was another – not entirely dissimilar - band destined to steal their thunder. Releasing their debut EP at approximately the same time, the word of mouth for Sheffielders Arctic Monkeys was like nothing that had come before. So when ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ took the world by storm in October of that year, it unfortunately became more of a case of “Who-Fi”.
Upon lukewarm critical reaction to their enjoyable enough second LP ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, it has taken four years for Hard-Fi to release their follow-up, with the main reason for the delay being the availability of co-producers Stuart Price (Madonna), Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen) and Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails). More pertinently, all three have worked with Las Vegas quartet The Killers, hinting at the direction the band have taken on their third album ‘Killer Sounds’. Make no mistake about it, the prominent use of electronics here means that this is not the Hard-Fi of old, and will feel like an absolute clusterf*ck on first listen. There is many a "WTF" moment, with 'Love Song' and 'Sweat' feeling as though they are going to burst out into a Donna Summer disco cut, while the horrendous 'Excitement' begins like a poor man's 'The Message', before somehow working in a hair-metal guitar solo. Hell, 'Feels Good' manages to combine a sitar, cheesy rhymes and yet another misplaced solo!
So how, you may ask, do Hard-Fi manage to muster a passable album out of this mess? Well, deep down, 'Killer Sounds' still contains all of the band's defining qualities: The quirky catchiness, the accessible indie aesthetic, Richard Archer's charming vocals and relatable lyrics... They are all still there to some extent, it's just that they are buried beneath the musical chaos that is taking place all around them. The album is clearly at its best when keeping things straight-forward, like on the pulsing beat of 'Fire In The House', the mild ska influences of lead single 'Good For Nothing', and the simplistically repetitive - but oh so addictive - choruses of the exuberantly playful 'Give It Up' and 'Stop'. It's just a shame that the album's latter half runs off the rails into clubsville, since by the time the half-decent semi-acoustic closer comes around, anything even resembling Hard-Fi's older sound seems terribly ill-fitting on such a record.
I suppose Hard-Fi should be given some credit for attempting to reinvent themselves before fading away into tedium. In a sense it is "mission accomplished" in that 'Killer Sounds' is rather memorable... Unfortunately, it is not always memorable for the right reasons. While Archer has officially retained co-producing duties, his band's third LP too often feels like a vehicle for his three hired guns. Just as the Arctic Monkeys do not belong in the American desert, Hard-Fi has little to no place at a London rave. It is such a waste really, since the catchy songwriting nous that still makes 'Killer Sounds' bearable, is also why it is such a disappointment. Let us just hope that the quartet can learn from the experience and come back a bigger and better band fourth time around.
Recommended Tracks: Good For Nothing, Give It Up & Stop.