On 2 May 2014, the Shepherds Bush Empire was enjoying a full house. The bars were busy, the punters in good spirits, the early evening as muggy as only London can conjure. It was three days after Bob Hoskins’ death and conversations were still centred on the passing of one of Britain’s best actors. So when showtime arrived, the lights were dimmed and then, at full volume through the PA, came the main theme to The Long Good Friday. It was a move of good taste and graciousness by the band. The Rifles, you see, are a band like few others who know just how to speak to the people. Okay, it’s their people they’re speaking to – to that tight coterie of rock’n’rolling mods – but musicians as good as they are capable of greater things.
So with this, Big Life, their fifth album (and a double album at that), they’re putting forward a summation of what they’re all about, with the inflections of those they admire strewn across both discs. With ‘Radio Nowhere’ and ‘Never Been That Close’ you get a dose of The Jam during their middle period, while with ‘Numero Uno’ there’s a ghostly echo of The Specials driven by an ‘A-Bomb In Wardour Street’ backbeat. ‘Young For A Day’ comes as a folky high point, proving that this band is capable of changing direction despite its stagnant mod branding.
The band’s almost hidden prowess is also evident in ‘Caught in The Summer Rain’ which is a wistful, pleasant sprawl of a song. And then comes ‘Victoria’, something of a Van Morrison confection and dedicated to a woman who won’t listen. It’s a perfectly crafted tune to stop you in your tracks for three minutes with Joel Stoker’s voice finding its ideal mount. (That said, the song isn’t improved upon by the acoustic version on disc 2.) And with the changing of discs comes the tune ‘Big Big Life’ and the realisation that the band in future should stay as far away from the Richard Archer sound as is humanly possible. But as the LP gallops to a close through three-minute sluggers like ‘Motorway, Independent, Misunderstood’ and ‘Time In Hand’, one entertains the notion that the next LP will be the game changer. All that’s needed is the courage to experiment.
Which takes us back to that warm spring evening of 2014 in west London, a night that saw drummer Grant Marsh experience his own George ‘Dubya’ Bush moment when someone threw a shoe at him mid rimshot. Grant ducked and grinned, the song surging on, the players laughing off the exuberant footwear attack. Yes, they’re a tight band and can write classic pop. This they have proved. Now let’s see them shift gears.
Big Life is out now.