Hard-Fi – Once Upon A Time In The West

Suburban heroes return with social conscience intact

First, some perspective. The suburbs – those semi-mythical cultural outposts built upon red bricks, re-mortgages and dreams of retirement that have long irked the ire of anyone with the misfortune to come from them – aren’t actually all that bad. Don’t believe us? Put a beleaguered resident of downtown Baghdad on Relocation, Relocation and see how quickly they’d swap their average Saturday night for the mild annoyance of ASBO teens throwing rocks at the windows of a disused dog food factory. Has the highlight of your week been watching your neighbours getting their driveway re-paved? Hey, at least you’re not starving to death in a Sudanese refugee camp. Point is, the thing that secretly pisses suburbanites off more than anything else is that, really, there isn’t a lot to be pissed off about. And if ever a band were on a perpetual quest for something to get angry over, that band is Hard-Fi.

When they first appeared on our radar in late 2004, the talk was of a 21st-century Clash, a band unafraid of dipping their toes into the murkier, more marginal genres that most indie bands would run a mile from, and one who had something significant to say about Modern Day Britain, whatever that entails. Nearly three years on, and Hard-Fi are no longer leafy Staines’ second-most famous export – thanks to a truckload of copies of ‘Stars Of CCTV’ finding their way into the nation’s homes. But with the words ‘You Have Insufficient Funds To Complete This Transaction’ now consigned to distant memory, their tales of life, love and monetary worries on the mean streets of Surrey are in danger of losing authenticity.

This is something Richard Archer and co attempt to address before ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ even begins – but the less said about the abysmal, try-hard attempt at subversive ‘rule-breaking’ that constitutes the album’s cover, the better. Bypassing that rather unfortunate artistic slip-up, the album opens with lead single ‘Suburban Knights’ (which, incidentally, has an even worse cover) and with the unwavering certainty of a morning commuter train, normal service is resumed. Based around a terrace chant that’ll be soundtracking goal of the month montages on Match of The Day very soon, your enjoyment of it will depend entirely on what you thought of ‘Stars Of CCTV’. Because it’s more or less a continuation, right down to its hamfisted social commentary (“Global terror, they say, ‘We are at war’/But ain’t got time for that/’Cos these bills keep dropping through my door”). A reinvention it ain’t, but it has its charms.

The Strummer-aping ‘I Shall Overcome’ is up next, and offers fewer surprises still. It’s so unmistakably Hard-Fi you can almost smell the kebab sauce stains from last time around, and it’s equally as depressing.

‘Tonight’, a sort of sombre reimagining of Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’ for satellite-dwellers, fares better, however, with ghostly strings and another of those chant choruses lending creedence to Archer’s vague tale of two lovers “getting out of” what we can only assume is a lower middle-class housing estate and heading for the bright lights of the city, or something.

You may have guessed by now, but ‘Once Upon A Time…’ is about as lyrically savvy as a Hollyoaks script, with the only real exception being the genuinely affecting ‘Help Me Please’, a simple and haunting piano ballad about the death of Archer’s mum, with scant pretensions to suburban discontent.

Once you accept the fact that most of the lyrics are paper-thin, however, there’s much fun to be had. ‘Television’ is pure brass-balled ’80s pop with a chorus that must kick itself for missing the festival season by a measly month, and that will win even the most sour-faced of doubters over. But it’s ‘Can’t Get Along’ that hints at genuine – and much welcome – progression. Accompanied by bombastic garlands of symphonic Motown brass and the cocksure swagger that marked ‘Stars Of CCTV’’s best moments, it has a few characteristic lyrical faux pas – “I picked fights with men twice my size/I picked fights, they punched out my lights” indeed – but coasts by on force of melody alone. The same applies for ‘We Need Love’, a slinky, Specials-indebted call to arms of the nation’s city centres that again tantalisingly suggests at what ‘Once Upon A Time…’ might have been.

What it is overall, however, is a disappointment. A few sparkling moments of invention aside, much of this album is comfortably interchangeable with ‘Stars Of CCTV’’s less inspired tracks, which makes it either a misguided attempt at the assertion of ‘realness’, or a worrying pointer to a dearth of new ideas. What’s clear, however, is that next time round, Hard-Fi are going to have to find something new to talk about – and to talk about it in more depth – or they’ll be shuffling back down that red brick road as quickly as they stormed out of it.