In the three years since Jon Hardy & the Public released the masterful full-length Working in Love, a lot and a little has changed for the band. While several personnel changes have altered the lineup (besides Hardy, only guitarist Glenn LaBarre remains from the Working sessions), the group's well-tailored blend of blue-eyed Memphis soul and plangent guitar rock hasn't evolved all that much in the intervening years. That's not a knock; few bands in town have hewed so closely to the fidelity of its signature sound. The quintet's new EP has all the pieces in place: Perfectly reverbed guitars, a soulful, bouncy low-end and scene-setting organ chords all frame Hardy's wonderful, undiminished voice. As a singer, he's learned to push his vocals harder and further. The artfully elongated vowels, the barest hint of Tennessee twang, the understatement that becomes a full-on bellow — Hardy wields all these tools with increasing confidence on each release.
A Hard Year is the third four-song EP the band has released since its last LP. (The download-only Little Criminals: Songs from Randy Newman and Sugar came out last year.) The recording features a Walkmen-like attention to both cavernous studio ambience and creeping existential dread. Where Working in Love was an album-length rumination on romantic highs and lows, this disc seeks a more communal type of connection. The bar-hopping bonhomie of opening track "Restless Again" is undercut by lingering fears of isolation and the fading promises of youth. Later, the alternatingly chiming and fuzzy "Silver Moon" frames this conundrum more directly: "It's easy to think that we'll never go back/This whiskey is making sure of that."
But Hardy and company are nothing if not optimists, even when things are at their bleakest. The title track turns its jangly shuffle (which pairs LaBarre's ragged arpeggios with keyboardist Johnny Kidd's bright piano plinks) into a slow-building coda. Even when the band drifts into what a friend has referred to as the Public's "Eddie & the Cruisers territory" — i.e., dramatic, turgid moments of rock & roll triumphalism — Hardy and his Public can still sell the dream, no matter how bleary-eyed they are upon waking from it.
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