CD Review of Once Upon a Time in the West by Hard-Fi
Recommended if you like
The Clash, Kaiser Chiefs,
The Specials
Label
Atlantic
Hard-Fi:
Once Upon a Time in the West

Reviewed by David Medsker

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I
’ve spoken with Hard-Fi singer and principal songwriter Richard Archer three times, and he has never seemed like anything but a standup small-town guy who just so happens to write songs that inspire festival crowds to sing to the heavens. As Number One bands go, Hard-Fi are about the most unassuming chart toppers you are likely to find. And yet, they’ve topped the UK album charts not once but twice: the band’s latest, Once Upon a Time in the West, debuted at #1. But when you get a Number One, as the poet laureate Adam Ant once observed, the only way is down. Will the same be said for Hard-Fi?

Not anytime soon. Once Upon a Time in the West is not the throat-grabbing instant classic that their £300 debut Stars of CCTV is, but the band doesn’t seem interested in making that record a second time, choosing instead to get their hands dirty. Or at least as dirty as you can get while sounding as pristine as possible.

Make no mistake, Hard-Fi is proud of what they accomplished with so little money the first time around, but they’re not about to do that again if they don’t have to. Leadoff track and first single “Suburban Knights” simply explodes out of the speakers, cymbals splashing while the band members chant “Heeeeey, Whoaaaaaa, Ahhhhhhhh” with a swagger that suggests that they invented the words. “I Shall Overcome” is filled with backwards drum fills and the cleanest acoustic guitar ever put to tape (Archer’s melodica also makes a nifty cameo), while “Watch Me Fall Apart” and “Television” (Part Two in Hard-Fi’s unofficial tribute to Blur’s The Great Escape, “Tied Up Too Tight” being Part One) experiment with lush string and horn arrangements, respectively. Archer maintains that he prefers the sound of the sampled horns they used on the first album. I don’t believe him for a minute.

The song that will surprise CCTV fans is “I Close My Eyes,” since it delves into Stones-via-Soup Dragons territory (or is it the Verve?). Dark, weird and abrupt – it stops dead at the 2:27 mark – it’s a good sign that Archer is expanding his songwriting past Oasis and the Clash. This is a good thing, because the second half of the album tails off somewhat. “We Need Love” and “Little Angel,” which are back to back, actually feel like radically different versions of the same song, so similar are their chord progressions, and closing track “The King” bears a tad too much resemblance to CCTV track “Better Do Better.” And let’s not even discuss the album’s obnoxious anti-marketing artwork. Would it have been so hard to do another low-tech cover like Stars of CCTV and be done with it?

In the end, the problem with Once Upon a Time in the West might be that it was rushed. The album doesn’t sound rushed, per se, but given the band’s hectic tour schedule, one cannot help but wonder if Archer would have come up with a couple more “Heeeeey, Whoaaaaaa, Ahhhhhhhh” moments had he been given a little more time.

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