Jon Hardy had already decided that his band's new album, its first full-length in seven years, would be called Restless City well before Ferguson and the rest of the greater St. Louis area became an international flashpoint for civil unrest. The title track itself is a tour of our town and its many scars; gunshots disrupt a summer's revelry, and a mother grieves over her gunned-down son in a lyric that is both oddly prescient and sadly evergreen. But Hardy has always been a songwriter blessed with empathy and devoid of much ego, and even when covering big issues (violence, decay, recessions), he favors the personal over the political.
Since 2007's Working in Love, Hardy and the Public have been content to release music in four-song spurts alongside the odd digital release; with Restless City, it's clear that Hardy was holding off on putting out another album until he had an obvious, coherent series of songs that skirted around a single theme. And just like Working served as a treatise on the sweat it takes to make a relationship thrive, Hardy turns his new set of songs outward to examine a world simply working to survive. Each verse in opening song "Something's Gotta Give" details a few characters' fiscal woes — stock-market crashes, medical bills, bankrupt pensions — without rancor or pity. Instead, the song sets the scene for what follows on the rest of the album: up-close portraits of struggle that seem to only be lightened only by flashes of love, friendship and mercy.
Unlike previous releases, there's not a horn chart or Motown bass line within earshot this time around; Johnny Kidd's keyboard arsenal is stocked with gossamer synth washes instead of organs and electric pianos, and shimmering, reverberant ambiance coats many of the edges on the album. The band's steady work on these songs, from Mike Schurk's sometimes-metronomic drums to Glenn LaBarre's tidy but barbed guitar parts, cut through the mist on songs like "Shot of Love." Likewise, the title and seductive sway of "I'm Your Man" references Leonard Cohen, but the synthesizer patter and heavily chorused guitars recall Echo & the Bunnymen. Good production has been a hallmark of all of Hardy's records, but the move away from established American soul sounds and toward more plangent textures doesn't dilute the big-hearted feel in his lyrics or delivery.
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