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Once Upon A Time In The West

Rating: 5.6/10 ?

October 19, 2007
With their sophomore album Once Upon A Time In The West, Hard-Fi have marked themselves as new acolytes carrying the banner of the chart-topping British sound. And why not? In the past decade, the UK has taken the buzz band idea to the extreme, the Arctic Monkeys erupting as the first made-by-Myspace bona-fides, and the rest of the country's current crop of new things earning hordes of (deserved?) publicity from the likes of Q and NME magazines. These days people are scarfing down anything that comes tagged with the words "Sounds like...," and followed by The Clash, The Jam, The Stone Roses, or Oasis. Add silky smooth production and a few songs that can pull double duty on the streets and in the club, and you've got a UK smash on your hands. Such is the case with Hard-Fi.

For a band burgeoning with promise on their debut, Stars of CCTV, Hard-Fi managed to lose their charm somewhere along their way to releasing Once Upon A Time In The West. I should note that this album isn't really all that bad, based on the aforementioned Brit-centric criteria, and the pump for more British indie rock was well primed before its end-of-summer release anyway - it debuted at #1 on the UK Album Charts. They may have been dangling low-hanging fruit on their debut, but Hard-Fi succeeded in turning heads with it, and on their follow-up they can still write hook-laden melodies with expansive harmonies, and it doesn't fall far short of Stars of CCTV, its success due in large part to the insatiable appetite of the UK album-buying public for anything remotely taggable with "RIYL Franz Ferdinand." What Stars of CCTV did to its credit, however, was make the most of a concoction of up-tempo hooks, disco beats, and dub reggae. Once Upon A Time is simply derivative, a rehash of the band itself.

To put it mildly, this release doesn't gain Hard-Fi any authenticity. Singing about life in the suburbs is a superfluous exercise when the music fails to reflect any of the luxuries that come with it. The members of Blur validated childhoods spent clamped under headphones in a comfortable existence with musical palettes to reflect their Nuclear Age upbringing. Hard-Fi, on the other hand, are churning out songs that are about as diverse and innovative as a slice of buttered bread. When it comes to thinking outside its little Union Jack box, Once Upon A Time's lead single, "Suburban Knights," is a mediocre try at best. Backed by robust production and harmonies that are meant to elicit a call and response effect, the song is about the never-ending dilemma of having nothing to do and having nothing to lose in suburbia. While prep-schoolers might find the album speaking directly to them, most of us have graduated from Dawson's Creek. "I Shall Overcome" and "Tonight" are stronger cuts, but they do not break from the album's basic (in every sense of the word) formula; the chorus of each is just as grandiose and wears just the same over time.

The track "I Close My Eyes" emerges Blur-like, "Help Me Please" apes Oasis, and "We Need Love" simulates Supergrass, but none of the tracks come close to being held up to the same candle as their Brit-pop forerunners. Once Upon A Time In The West is saved from the sub-5/10 rating scrap heap by the infrequent cameos of non-Brity influences, but the highlights are very few and far between. Archer and crew find their footing on "The King," at least doing the service of closing out on a high note, much the same as CCTV's ending with the unparalleled title track. "The King" features orchestration reminiscent of the Verve, a prominent Archer, and a melody that continues to build on its second verse. For a band steeped in the flimsiness of expressway satellite communities, here they manage a potent dose of sincerity in their delivery: "I've been thinking of you/ Every waking hour/ Staring at the wall/ Trying to find the nerve to call/ Catch your photo and I wonder/ Are you still on this number/ But in my heart I know/ You changed that number long ago." Not exactly Thom Yorke-caliber, but in the context it works.

Hard-Fi could very well wind up with something very legit going on down the road, if they should choose to break away from the glossy UK traditionalism overpowering their sound. While the band have studied their historical flow charts and found their way back to the likes of London Calling, Hard-Fi might be better to examine those albums' roots, all the non-British sounds that influenced them. With a pair of headphones and a cozy room in Staines they might just get some much needed perspective on two key variables: where their influences' influences came from, and where Hard-Fi are going.

Reviewed by Patrick Gill
In in a state of suspended adolescence, Patrick Gill can be found hiding away in northwest Ohio, where he spends most of his time rediscovering shoegaze, noise pop, britpop, slowcore, sadcore, lo-fi, neo-psychedelia, post-rock, trad rock, and trip-hop music. In his spare time he teaches college English.

See other reviews by Patrick Gill



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