Once Upon a Time in the West

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A common thread that ran throughout the wild praise for Hard-Fi's Mercury Prize-nominated 2006 debut, Stars of CCTV, is that the Staines quartet were warriors against the stultifying sameness of suburbia. Far from running from this pigeonholing, Hard-Fi opens up their second album, Once Upon a Time in the West, with "Suburban Knights," a pun that reveals the depth of their cleverness just as the second song, "I Shall Overcome," reveals the depth of their politics, as the title of the '60s protest standard "We Shall Overcome" is turned upside down and inward, making it a plea for personal release. Such is the world view of Hard-Fi's singer/songwriter, Richard Archer, who does pen plenty of anthems about escaping the suburbs or other urban plights, but they're pulled out of the rock & roll rebel handbook, as he inadvertently hits the clich├ęs hard on Once Upon a Time in the West (which perhaps shouldn't be a surprise given the title), so desperate to tie himself to his idols (meaning the Clash, particularly Joe Strummer) that he forgets to create an identity of his own. If Archer's lyrics are a bit textbook, they don't call attention to themselves, as they're delivered in his pretty, plain earnest schoolboy voice that itself is swallowed up by the clatter of the band, who also blatantly echo their rock & roll heroes but assemble their thievery in ways that are often accidentally idiosyncratic. They don't rely on the Clash quite as heavily as they did on Stars -- there are righteous anthems and elastic reggae rhythms, but they don't dominate the proceedings -- and there still is a strong dose of the Verve, particularly in the spacey urban atmospheres, but there are also traces of Franz Ferdinand's new wave revivalism, "We Need Love" has an electro hum, and "Can't Get Along" even dabbles in the bouncy British interpretation of Motown as patented by the Jam. Hard-Fi's idiosyncrasy comes in how the band doesn't quite synthesize these together with finesse. Styles rub against each other like sandpaper and stray sounds stick out like shards of glass, which can make for interesting juxtapositions, but not really compelling ones, especially since the noisiest tracks are the least successful songs. Apart from "Can't Get Along," Hard-Fi are best when they go for the arena-filling power ballads, which make them not dissimilar to the Manic Street Preachers, another politically minded band who had their breakthrough when they polished their message until it could be swallowed unwittingly by the masses (and, like the Manics, Hard-Fi succumbs to grand gestures, such as the cover art of Once Upon a Time: a blunt "No Cover Art," a clever conceit somewhat undercut by the band's name and album title emblazoned above the proclamation). But where the Manics were defiantly intellectual (and often quite odd) beneath that veneer, Hard-Fi on this uneven sophomore album are nothing more than average guys unhappy with their lot in life, so they strike out against whatever targets are at hand, from their hometown to the war on terror, which seem to bother them equally if their even-handed delivery is to be trusted. Perhaps all this misdirected fury and noise is an appropriate soundtrack to 2007, but Hard-Fi would have been better off if they had truly learned from the Clash and railed against the modern world instead of merely reflecting it.

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