Hardwicke Circus “Fly The Flag”

Alternative Facts Records, 2023

Local pride, realist vignettes and clever harmonies characterise sophomore album.

Hardwicke Circus - Fly The Flag album artworkHardwicke Circus are a Carlisle five-piece specialising in a blend of rock’n’roll, soul, Motown and pop. With over 1000 gigs under their belts, including a support spot for Bob Dylan at Hyde Park, as well as a recommendation from Paul McCartney, the band are grafting hard, turning heads and gaining momentum. This is evident in the thrust of their second album ‘Fly The Flag’, a largely up-tempo affair, packed full of bright vocal harmonies, saxophone, trumpet, and layers of keys.

The band’s musical genealogy shines through in their sound, there are hints of Van Morrison, Dexys Midnight Runners, Elvis Costello, Squeeze and the Beatles across the album. However, their music is far from derivative; they blend their influences with aspects of modern pop and indie, and embellish their tracks with lyrics exploring regional identity, history, hard work, love and even the strife of refugees. The themes of this album link the local with the global, the mundane with the profound.

Opener ‘Every Day I Find the Luck’, begins with sparky major chords and “oh oh ohs”. The lyrics revolve around working toward a distant dream that sometimes feels more dependent on luck rather than effort. At times the vocal phrasing lags slightly behind the beat, redolent of the slog of thankless tasks, but in contrast the harmonies span several octaves creating a driven, bright-early-morning kind of sound. The message of ‘keeping on keeping on’ continues into ‘Bang My Head (To the Rhythm of Life)’: “Oh I wake up every morning and smell the coffee/ I tell myself to just get on with the day”; as well as the struggles of everyday life, romantic strife is also explored here.

‘True Love’ sounds both modern and retro – a smorgasbord of contemporary British indie, 80s europop and new wave – the slowly ascending chorus is perhaps even reminiscent of Spandau Ballet. Minor key synth and piano-led interludes give the song a slyly dark edge. It’s a grower.

‘Can You Hear Me Now?’ initially sounds like a lovesick lament, but in fact reveals tales of refugees’ struggles, including the tragedy in which tens of Vietnamese migrants died in a refrigerated lorry back in 2019: “Loaded in a chiller truck, crushed between a thousand silent screams”. The contrast between the distressing and all-too-real subject matter and the melancholy yet chirpy instrumental feels a little jarring, yet this perhaps reflects the jarring nature of such incidents and the sense of detachment many feel due to the reporting style of such events in the news media. Either way, such topics are always hard to address adequately in song, and its not clear whether fully works here.

‘Battlefield’ sounds both Celtic and Gallic, with folky melodies and accordion; the gently undulating two-chord verse is reminiscent of Jackie Leven, and could soundtrack a view of a medieval, misty, muddy Cumbrian landscape. The lyrics perhaps tell a tale of familial conflict, or maybe reference Carlisle’s bloody borderland history: “I live on a battlefield in the comfort of my home”. The applicability of the lyrics to multiple scales, be it personal hurt or a sense of regional abandonment, is evident in the lines: “You feel abandoned, who’s to blame?”.

A couple of the songs blend into each other a little toward the middle of the album. Thankfully though, the second half has its fair share of standouts, starting with ‘The Colour in Everything’ – a Motown-inflected love song with sweet vocal harmonies and arpeggiated piano.

‘Our Town’ is arguably the album’s best song. Opening with simple acoustic strums, minimal synth and a steady yet driving rhythm, the realist lyrics offer a grittily affectionate and evocative homage to Carlisle: “metal clanging in the factory yard”, “Sunday morning on the comedown, a good night in our town”, “the smell of biscuits on that long walk home”, “Brunton Park chanting up the blues”, “Roman noses in ripped wedding gowns” – it paints a rich image of the town’s heritage, character, cheer, successes and tribulations; hope for the future is also expressed in the line: “This town ain’t over”. The track’s unexpected ending also gives a nod to the Carlisle sense of humour.

‘Night Train to London’ has a circus-like, fever-dreamy, almost Kafkaesque atmosphere, replete with zombie-film imagery: “I’ll be a dead man walking when I find my way… Is there anybody alive? Destination the other side”.

Album closer ‘No More Doggin’’ is like a lost late-60s Beatles track, with its distorted vocal and swaggering, bluesy rhythm. It’s an apt finish to a confident and entertaining album full of vim and life. Although the album could be trimmed a little, the skilful musicianship, variety of styles and smart lyrics make this well worth a listen.

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About Joe Graham 14 Articles
New Cross based fan of americana, country, folk and folk rock music. Besides that, I enjoy exploring the city on runs and walks, finding pubs and gig venues, playing guitar and watching some football every now and again.
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