Review Summary: Staines indie-rockers aim to impress, but only succeed sporadically.
It's perhaps a backhanded compliment to say that it's easy to feel something, whatever it is, towards Hard-Fi. The time that they arrived amidst the overcrowded British post-punk revival was either perfect or terrible, depending on how you view things; they arrived too late to be considered innovators or originals, but early enough to beat their nearest rivals into the charts. Hard-Fi's tales of living in a modern British inner-city, surrounded by drunks and druggies, was innovative for all of 4 months in 2005, until they were thoroughly usupred from the limelight by the Arctic Monkeys in January 2006. However, they got there first, and the likes of "Hard To Beat", "Cash Machine", and "Stars of CCTV" have at least endured as pop songs until now. This is a success, albiet a relatively minor one. But their genre has become overcrowded since then, and several bands (The Futureheads, Bloc Party, etc.) have fallen foul of a poor second album.
So, needless to say, the onus was on Hard-Fi to improve on this album, especially since it seems that many people are expecting, if not willing, them to fail. Whether they actually have improved or not is another matter. Once Upon A Time In The West
is certainly a step away from Stars of CCTV
, displaying both a decidedly more personal edge from Richard Archer and an expanded vision, both lyrically and sonically. The effort the band have put into this release can't be faulted - to quote two early examples, "I Shall Overcome" gently expands on the template of their debut by adding a more gentle style of singing, a mildly flashy guitar solo, and snappy acoustic guitars that instantly make the whole thing sound like French cult heroes Phoenix, and "Tonight" is a piano-led track that sports a skittering, nervous drum beat that almost moves the band into trip-hop territory, and a string quartet livening up the second half of the track.
And yet, despite the progression and the impressive stylistic range on display, there still seems to be something holding the band back from greatness. As harsh as it is to highlight a single band member, the lyrics are most frequently to blame; while the sentiment and the commitment are solid, the exeuction is occasionally trite. "Suburban Knights", the lead single, shows that clearly enough when it provides one of the year's most unintentionally hilarious moments. The bulk of the song is clearly designed to sound as much like Stars of CCTV
, in particular "Hard To Beat", as possible, but the band drop a clanger and a half when the music breaks down to highlight Archer crooning the lines 'And those people who criticize us, well, we're only saying what we're seeing with our own eyes'. It's probably meant to sound tough, arrogant, defiant. It actually sounds petulant and pretty pathetic. The video makes this funnier, zooming in to Archer's face so we can see just how sincere he is. Yeah, people criticizing you hurts your feelings, man.
Though I've only mentioned the first three tracks so far, that's basically the story of the whole album. The band are consistently attempting to move forward, and they throw up much to savour - "I Close My Eyes" has a low-slung dirty bassline propelling the song, "Television" is a stab at a bruised ballad with a chanted chorus adding much needed contrast, "Can't Get Along (Without You)" is a surprisingly authentic Motown tribute, and "The King" is alternately folky and sweeping, with a guitar part that's not a million miles away from Metallica's "One". And yet, just as they look ready to really elevate themselves to another level, something stops them getting there. On "Television", it's the chorus, which seems oddly uninspired given how good the rest of the song is (the lyrics, again, falter here). On "Help Me Please", which melodically sounds a little like Arcade Fire's "Intervention", it's Archer's voice, which doesn't have the gravitas or character to pull off a ballad like this. On "We Need Love", it's simply the fact that it sounds a little too similar to the Kaiser Chiefs for comfort. True, some tracks are free of such glass cielings - "Can't Get Along (Without You)" and "The King" being the most notable - but too often, the band seems to find themselves incapable of going as far as they'd like to.
Although it's a little inferior to Stars of CCTV
, Once Upon A Time In The West
is a good album, make no mistake about that. The problem is that it's only good, and right now, that's not enough. The succession of British bands, or British-approved bands, moving into their second albums has in many cases thrown up a sharp realisation; is this band capable of a career, or not" Franz Ferdinand have succeeded with flying colours, The Killers and Scissor Sisters seem to have done just about enough, while The Bravey, The Futureheads, and Kaiser Chiefs have failed. Like Bloc Party, Hard-Fi sit confusingly almost exactly between the two extremes. Time, and the quality of their next outing, will tell whether or not this band will make it to a fourth album. If they do, it's their work ethic that they can thank. This album might not quite contain evidence of enough talent to truly make it big, but they seem to be trying harder than all of their contemporaries. That at least is something we can, and should, respect.