Review Summary: Nothing left to prove.
The Hoosiers’ 2014 effort The News from Nowhere
was a solid comeback that cemented their longevity, proving their career still had avenues to explore outside the bubble of mainstream success. Keeping up that momentum, The Secret Service
arrived only eighteen months later, backed by the same self-promotion and fan funding that had made its predecessor possible. As with any Hoosiers album, I can only use hindsight to make my analysis, but it seems this one was received even more quietly than the last. There’s not a single rating or review to be found here in the glorious land of Sputnik! So it seems I have to carry the torch and let the masses know that the Hoosiers still have something to offer.
The Secret Service
continues the Hoosiers’ streak of distinct, utterly dissimilar works. This is maybe their least defined though, which likely stems from two factors: its original conception as a series of separately-released EPs and the departure of bassist Martin Skarendahl, who’d been with them for eight years. The latter, of course, depends on how involved Skarendahl was in the songwriting process, which I can’t speculate on. In any case, there’s a lack of cohesion that permeates the record. To my ears, this gives it something in common with The Trick to Life
, their 2007 debut. There’s even a direct reference in the fun head-bobbing romp “The Secret to Happiness”, which is clearly no accident. The Secret Service
embraces its great-grandfather’s sensibilities without sacrificing its own identity, recapturing that headlong wistfulness without becoming a shameless attempt to relive past glories (which wouldn’t have accrued many more downloads anyhow, I imagine). The connection is spiritual more so than it is musical. This is not to say The Secret Service
is a regression by any means, but it does feel like the band is struggling to step out of their comfort zone on occasion, a problem carried over from the poised indie rock of The News from Nowhere
. Granted, it’s a comfort zone wider than some bands could ever dream of.
There’s a lot to like about The Secret Service
, and some of that has to do with its lack of cohesion. “Pristine” and “The Wheels Fell Off” kick things off with a sunny one-two punch that doesn’t feel too distant from the opening offerings of Nowhere
. From there, the album starts to explore its color wheel with some compelling results. The seductive “Up to No Good” oozes a kind of hip R&B groove that the Hoosiers have never touched before. The band sounds as tight and confident as ever here, and each individual musician contributes fine work. It’s a highlight not only for the album, but for the group’s entire career. Another keeper is “I Will Be King”, which coasts off of one of the record’s catchiest hooks and a danceable Speaking in Tongues
-era Talking Heads outro. Capping off the album is “(My) Secret Service”, another delightful little gem with drummer Alan Sharland helming the vocals. It’s become a real treat to hear his voice pop up in the Hoosiers’ songs, and I hope we get more of him in their next release. To his own credit, lead vocalist Irwin Sparkes doesn’t slouch at all here either. His versatility is on full display throughout, taking a decisive step up from his overly comfortable work on The News from Nowhere
. A particular highlight is “Dancers in the Dark”, where he shines with a ghostly tenderness than attains a level of vulnerability not seen since “A Sadness Runs Through Him”.
The Secret Service
is not without its blemishes, unfortunately. “Runs in the Family” tells a coarse story about masculinity that would be more compelling if not so lyrically forced (there might be more swearing here than in the rest of their discography combined). “Wearing Down the Carpet”, meanwhile, takes more than five minutes to tell one’s ears very little. It’s sonically adventurous but feels somewhat pointless as a piece of songwriting, making it a pale imitation of ambitious tunes like “Sarajevo” and “Handsome Girls and Pretty Boys”. Still, even at its lowest moments, The Secret Service
is brimming with as many ideas as any other Hoosiers record. The band never hits autopilot, and that alone makes for a more satisfying listen than much of modern rock can provide. Overall, the highs are higher than those of The News from Nowhere
, even if it lacks that record’s cohesive aesthetic flavor, and the lows are just as moderate. That makes it another successful outing for the Hoosiers and one with plenty of potential to grow on a skeptical listener over time.
It’s been a pleasure to explore the Hoosiers’ body of work. What to expect next from them is hazy. Since the release of The Secret Service
, they’ve lost keyboardist Sam Swallow, slimming them all the way down to a two-piece outfit for the first time. Today, they’re still playing shows in the UK, and work on their next project has commenced, according to their website. Sure sounds like the Hoosiers are gonna keep pressing on with a strong back catalogue and a slim-but-dedicated fanbase in tow. Given their survival of maddening major-label shenanigans and mainstream alienation, that’s not exactly surprising. To paraphrase the first lyrics of the Hoosiers’ career -- truth be told, I’m not
worried what the future holds.