Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Hardwicke Circus: “The Borderland” (2021) CD Review

Hardwicke Circus is a relatively new band based in Carlisle, a city in northern England. They put out their first album in 2021. Titled The Borderland, in part because, hey, their city is near the Scottish border, this album features all original music. The guys talk a bit about their hometown in the liner notes booklet, giving us a sense of where they’re coming from, both in the geographic sense and with regards to their music. It is interesting that in the liner notes they also mention alternative facts (and in fact that is the name of the band’s record label). Was that twisted lizard Kellyanne “Bowling Green Massacre” Conway exported to England, or is it just that whatever illness ails us in the states automatically spreads to other corners of the world? The band is made up of Johnny Foster on lead vocals, rhythm guitar and acoustic guitar; Tom Foster on drums, percussion and vocals; Ben Wilde on bass and vocals; Zack McDade on lead guitar, electric 12-string guitar, mandolin and vocals; Lewis Bewley-Taylor on piano, organ, synthesizers, harmonium, banjo and vocals; and Andy Sax on tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, flute and vocals.

The album opens with “Guiding Light,” a song that has a bit of a 1980s flavor to some of the vocal work and the tone. There is something undeniably catchy about this song. “So what I dread/Time spent in my head/I feel cold/Like an empty cemetery.” And near the end there is a cool lead on saxophone. And with that bright energy and talk of a new day, it is the perfect way to start the band’s first album, to announce this band’s presence. And then something about the vocal delivery at the beginning of “No Surrender” reminds me a bit of Billy Bragg. “Listen, respect, take heed/Soon a trial may come/Never would I have felt at home/If the storm had never won.”  That is followed by “Lockown.” A whole lot of good music came as a result of, and in response to, the pandemic. “Lockdown” obviously addresses that time in 2020 when venues were closed, and we were all told to stay at home. It was a time of confusion, of fear, when the news was never good. This is a good rock song that begins with drums. “Who’s that knocking at my door?/It’s like we live in 1984.” References to that George Orwell novel abounded here in the states after that illiterate conman bullied and lied his way into office, telling people not to believe what they saw or heard. There is also some fun backing vocal work at certain moments (reminding me of some of the more playful moments from J. Geils Band). “Lockdown, lockdown/Don’t want no virus from you/Lockdown, lockdown/Yeah, you know it’s the truth/Lockdown, lockdown/Oh, baby, don’t you change/Somebody get me out of this place.” This track is a whole lot of fun, one of my personal favorites.

Another of the disc’s highlights is “Walking On Broken Glass.” It opens with these lines: “There’s no two ways about it, there’s no easy way out/Don’t keep it in your head, don’t keep it silent, spit it out/So you tell me your living is easy/You’ve got something to live for.” In the liner notes, the band mentions that the song came as an emotional response to a traumatic incident at Dixon’s Chimney in October of 2019 when a man was left hanging by his ankle after slipping, and ended up dying of hypothermia. Apparently there is a strong sense of community in Carlisle for this to have such an effect on the population. I’m a bit envious of it from my spot in Los Angeles where something like this might not even make the news. Anyway, it is a really good song with a strong hook, feeling like a hit, and was released as a single. I particularly like the work on keys. And the saxophone is an integral element of the song, rather than an additional layer. That is followed by “Carry The Torch,” a slower number, a song of heartache, a song of a breakup. “Baby, baby, wish I knew what went wrong/Wish I knew what went wrong.” I think we’ve all been in that spot at one point or another, and Jonny Foster delivers a passionate vocal performance that drives the song. And of course a good saxophone lead in needed in a song like this, and we get one.

“My Sweet Love” is a sweeter song, with some good work on saxophone. I mentioned hearing a Billy Bragg influence earlier in this album, but in the liner notes regarding this track, Billy Bragg is actually mentioned. And, yes, there is something of him in this song. “So excuse me if I’m out of touch/The clock’s ticking, I see the morning bus/And I got blisters on my feet too.” That’s followed by “Hands Up Don’t Shoot.” Systemic racism and police violence are big problems in this country, and this band addresses them in this song. The song is a reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, and the protests and investigation which followed. “Hands up, don’t shoot” became a slogan of the protestors, as it became known that Michael Brown had his hands up when he was shot several times. That shooting was back in 2014, and it was far from the last time such a thing happened. “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” is a good rock song with a punk edge, featuring some excellent work on guitar. That’s followed by “Nowhere Left To Run,” a good and lively rock tune with some catchy elements, particularly that “ooh ooh ooh” vocal part. Then “Ballad Of The Gypsy King” is one of the album’s coolest, strongest tracks. It grabs you right from the start, and has a delicious rhythm. It’s about a boxer named Tyson Fury. I know nothing about this guy, care nothing about boxing, but the song is compelling and completely enjoyable anyway.

“Let’s Make New Mistakes” has my favorite title of the album. The song features a driving beat and synthesizers. “Let’s make it last, let’s make it last/I might not be everything you want me to be/Open up your eyes, you will see/Come tomorrow, it’s a brand new day/Let’s go, honey, let’s make new mistakes.” Indeed! It’s a strange brand of optimism, isn’t it? And it works for me. That’s followed by “A Reason To Believe,” which features another driving beat, music that says keep going, onward, onward, onward. The album then concludes with “The Debatable Land,” the closest thing to a title track on this album, a song about the land where the band is from, a place that is in between. “Am I allowed to love you with an honest face/For the world that you come from is just a wall away.”

CD Track List

  1. Guiding Light
  2. No Surrender
  3. Lockdown
  4. Walking On Broken Glass
  5. Carry The Torch
  6. My Sweet Love
  7. Hands Up Don’t Shoot
  8. Nowhere Left To Run
  9. Ballad Of The Gypsy King
  10. Let’s Make New Mistakes
  11. A Reason To Believe
  12. The Debatable Land

The Borderland was released on July 23, 2021 on Alternative Facts Records.

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