HARD FI-Once Upon a Time in the West

Here on this corner of the blogosphere, we have a general rule against reviewing RIAA material. But we’re making an exception for Hard Fi for selfish reasons. The Middlesex, England, band’s first album (which premiered on an independent label, Necessary Records) was one of my favorite albums of this Century. It got them signed to Atlantic Records, where they re-recorded the indie release but stayed true to the concept and sound of the lower-budgeted release. Their spirit and their music is modern punk (they are often compared to The Clash, who also were on a major label), and Stars of CCTV is nothing short of a masterpiece. The band’s first tour sold out and they’re doing well for themselves, so they don’t need help froma humble blogger like m’self, but on the other hand, we all need a few supergroups. And these guys deserve to be one, at least based on their first album.

Which brings me to Once Upon a Time in the West. The title alone worried me as I broke the plastic seal around the CD. First, it’s pretty cliche. Second, their first album was all about England and paranoia. I’m not sure how I feel about British punks crossing the pond and taking on an American theme. Also, I’m worried that it’ll be an attempt at alt-country, like The Killers’ big misstep last year.

Their first album will be Hard To Beat, I think. After all, it sold well and was a virtual Cash Machine for them. For all know, they finished it, went on some big Middle Eastern Holiday, and started Living For The Weekend. I Gotta Reason that all that success will just cause Unnecessary Trouble for them artistically–they’ll be Tied Up Too Tight by label pressures. If so, they better Move On Now. They Better Do Better than their first album.

So I thought, well, what better way to review the second than to A/B it against the first?

TRACK ONE: Cash Machine versus Suburban Knights. The title of the new first single has me concerned, for the reasons listed above. But it’s got a pretty tight hook, with a Kaiser Chiefs chant on the chorus. It’s a solid tune, and I’m digging it. But Cash Machine is a brilliant anthem that can stand beside any Friday Night Quittin’ Time song out there. Score one for Stars of CCTV, but not because Suburban Knights isn’t good. Only because Cash Machine is phenomenal.

TRACK TWO: Middle Eastern Holiday versus I Shall Overcome. Middle Eastern Holiday is actually pretty similar to Suburban Knights, whereas I Shall Overcome is somewhat downtempo with a twinge of ska. Musically, it’s a far more complex song than Middle Eastern Holiday, with its time shifts and swells at the chorus. Plus, if it isn’t my favorite song on the new album, it’s damn close. Score one for Once Upon a Time.

TRACK THREE: Tied Up Too Tight versus Tonight. One of the great things about Hard Fi is their ability to play a slow and fast song with equal energy. The slower songs on CCTV weren’t excuses to get the ladies interested, they were solid songs that simply played better without a hyperactive backbeat. Tied Up Too Tight was merely slower than what had preceded it on CCTV. Tonight is the first downright slow song on the new album. It’s okay, but it’s a little too slow. A little dull. And I could do without the violins. I appreciate what they’re trying to do here, expanding into stadium balladry, but it’s not working for me. Score two for CCTV, although neither of these songs are particularly good examples of what this band is capable of.

TRACK FOUR: Gotta Reason versus Watch Me Fall Apart. When the string section begins the first few notes of Watch Me Fall Apart, I first think I’ve hit the wrong button: This is “All Of My Love” by Led Zeppelin. But no, it’s Hard Fi following up the moody “lighters up” anthem of Tonight with another slow song. Two slow ones in a row? They didn’t do that on the first record. Gotta Reason is tight and tough (and Tied Up Too Tight wasn’t very slow, anyway). Still, Watch Me Fall Apart is strangely compelling. “Every smiling face just brings you down, brings you down,” Richard Archer sings in the slow drawl of Sunday Morning Comin’ Down. Musically, it’s a simple slow song, but it’s catchy. These two songs are so different from each other. I’m calling this one a draw.

TRACK FIVE: Hard To Beat versus I Close My Eyes. Make that impossible to beat. I Close My Eyes is a really hot song, punk screaming over clatter into a collective shout. It’s excellent. But Hard to Beat is better. Point goes to CCTV.

TRACK SIX: Unnecessary Trouble versus Television. The third unforgettable anthem from CCTV crushes the competition. But I must say that for a song that rhymes “television” with “new religion” and has a chorus of “hallelujah,” Television surprisingly doesn’t sound trite. And by all rights, it should.

TRACK SEVEN: Move On Now versus Help Me Please. At last, two slow numbers going head to head. Move On Now is probably the weakest song on CCTV. On the other hand, Help Me Please was mixed better on the “Help: A Day In The Life” charity CD that it first appeared on. Points to Hard Fi for remixing it so that completists still have to buy the other record (although taking the wind out of a charity CD sale by republishing the track on their album seems a little stingy). Overall, though, the edge goes to Once Upon a Time.

TRACK EIGHT: Better Do Better versus Can’t Get Along (Without You). At last, Once Upon a Time kicks up the speed a notch. Can’t Get Along never hits the frenzied pace of the best Hard Fi songs, but it has a classic, almost 1950s feel to it. Old Time Rock And Roll and all. Nice effort, and an interesting progression in their sound. Better Do Better, from CCTV, isn’t much of a departure from Hard Fi’s standard sound. So for experimenting and succeeding, I’m enthusiastically giving West it’s second victory.

TRACK NINE: Feltham Is Singing Out versus We Need Love. By the time you hit CCTV’s ninth cut, you know what to expect from Feltham, and it delivers a good dancepunk song. But West offers We Need Love, which in some ways seems Lennonesque. “I see the fear in your eyes/When they keep you afraid you believe all their lies . . . What we need now is love/not suspicion, division/In Washington, New York City/What we need now is love.” It’s ballsy for a punk band to ask for love. Yeah, the lyrics a little clunky and the shout-outs to all the troubled countries in the world borders on the pedantic, and yet it sounds sincere. Again, Hard Fi asks you to come along with them on a somewhat riskier tune than they usually make. And again, it works. Score three for West.

TRACK 10: Living For The Weekend versus Little Angel. Weekend is the last balls-out rocker on CCTV, and it’s a great one. Christ, I love this album. How can a song called Little Angel possibly compare? What’s that? A horn section? Are they just showing off their recording budget? No! It’s good! It’s really good! Score four for West.

TRACK 11: Stars of CCTV versus The King. I swear to God I didn’t plan this. The score is tied even four to four, with two ties along the way. Hard Fi has clearly avoided the sophmore slump. Both albums close with the slowest songs on each record. Stars of CCTV is significantly more interesting, but both are great in their own way. So Hard Fi’s first album wins, by a nose. But by this time, I don’t care. I’ve found what may be my favorite modern band.

Suburban Knights

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