Hard-Fi, Grand Drive, Frank Black, The Cowboy Junkies
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Hard-Fi/
Grand Drive/
Frank Black/
The Cowboy Junkies

[The Mail On Sunday, 2005]




WE CAN THANK Mike Skinner for returning British street life to the pop charts (before that, it was all Suede's hilariously glamorous glue-sniffers.) Next up are Hard-Fi, whose engrossing songs combine the blunt smack of plausibility with the tough vigour of the world they depict.
 Stars Of CCTV (Necessary, ****) impresses more with every listen. It's a rock album - one that manoeuvres through a series of big arrangements with a wiry, shifty strut - but it's as urban as any R&B record you'd care to name. Both in its own right, and as an antidote to some of the faux-proletarian claptrap out there, it's a real tonic.
 Grand Drive's London-based brothers Wilson were devotees of country long before it became fashionable, and their love for the form permeates every moment of Being Alive - Loose Wheels And Latch Keys (Sony BMG, ***). A rarities collection that also serves as a fine if variable introduction, its best tracks spread themselves with a plaintive, rolling sweetness, evoking such country-rock touchstones as Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Nashville Skyline and American Beauty without overtly duplicating them.
 As Pixies' frontman, Frank Black is famously loud. The Cowboy Junkies are renowned for being quiet. New albums see each drifting towards the other's territory. So restrained is the sound on Black's Honeycomb (Cooking Vinyl, ****), it verges on the subdued - all the better to unmask a splendid selection of songs that rivals his Pixies heyday. As Honeycomb underlines, the intensity of Black's music lies as much in his writing as in his guitar (here barely amplified) or his scream (replaced by an almost jaunty croon.)
 Early 21st Century Blues (Cooking Vinyl, **) is a less successful detour. The Cowboy Junkies, once all murmurs and whispers, have raised the volume a notch or two, but that can't salvage their state-of-the-nation address to what they perceive as a wounded, ferocious America. The subject is too heavy for their fragile shoulders. They bring labour, not poignancy, to Dylan, Springsteen and Lennon covers; and attempting to follow Johnny Cash's take on U2's One is a fool's errand. The album's pretty enough, for the most part, but only George Harrison's Isn't A Pity stands revealed afresh.





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