Hard-Fi's debut 'Stars of CCTV' is one of the best albums I have ever heard, so I was very, very excited about the release of 'Once Upon a Time in the West'. Unfortunately, I've got to say that, although it's a good, solid record, this sophomore effort just doesn't live up to its predecessor.
Lead single 'Suburban Knights', with its chanted refrain, is a good enough singalong, but it feels more than a little like a Kasabian pastiche - and Hard-Fi are (or were) better than that. In places, the band appear to have lost their edge; the passion and anger that made their debut so thrilling seem dulled, and the lyrics about ordinary working life now ring hollow. Most baffling is the decision not only to include 'Can't Get Along (Without You)' - a track first recorded by frontman Richard Archer's previous band Contempo - but also to release it as a single. In my opinion, this is the worst song Hard-Fi have ever recorded; the lyrics are cringe-inducing. As a long-time fan, I can't understand why the band would include a track like this when they've had far better B-sides - the anthemic 'Stronger', for example, and their scintillating cover of the White Stripes' 'Seven Nation Army'.
This certainly isn't to say that the album is all bad. The bitter, defiant 'I Shall Overcome' has a great gospel-influenced chorus. Strings are used to fantastic effect on 'Watch Me Fall Apart' and 'Tonight', giving the songs an air of grandeur that was absent from the first album. 'We Need Love' sounds like a football chant as mixed by Goldfrapp - no bad thing, since this brings an experimental edge to the band's sound. There's a couple of tracks, most notably 'Television', that have incredibly weak verses but still boast Hard-Fi's trademark powerful choruses. Because of this, the record becomes more likeable the more you play it and familiarise yourself with the songs.
'Once Upon a Time in the West' is a good album, with a few standout tracks; and if you're already a Hard-Fi fan, or if you like 'Suburban Knights', you'll find it very listenable. But if you're new to the band, my advice would be to buy the far superior 'Stars of CCTV' - in my opinion, a record good enough to be called a bona fide classic, with every song good enough to be made a single.