By Roland ScarlettThe cheesy pop that defined the 90s is increasingly out of vogue and British music is searching for artistic credibility. Placing themselves at the forefront of this search are Hard-Fi. It is a mere two years since their happy-go-lucky, anthemic tunes propelled them to #1 in the album charts and secured them the accolade of a Mercury nomination. Despite all this, Hard-Fi are ‘maturing’ and the differences between Hard-Fi ancien and Hard-Fi nouveau become apparent on first sight of their new album.The ‘design’ of a plain yellow inlay with only the band’s name and the disclaimer “no cover art” was, according to drummer, Steve Kemp, no mere act of rebellion or publicity stunt. Rather, it was a “conscious decision to move away from the staid, boring art” record companies favour. In a time when album art is losing relevance, most frequently seen on a two inch ipod screen, Kemp believes Hard-Fi “had the bollocks to do something about it” and produce something bold. Peter Saville described it as “the white album of the digital age”. Kemp dismisses the widespread criticism of the music press.After the controversy comes the music; Once Upon A Time In The West sees the band’s original raw sound and poppy hooks being softened with the addition of strings and more solemn compositions. Though the band has changed much since their first album, they still deal in what Kemp would call “universal human emotions” of alienation, love and despair. Hard-Fi have ambition: they want to be an international band of the people. Kemp refers to Oasis’s ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’, a song to which “the man on the street thought ‘fucking hell that’s me’”. He hopes his music provokes the same reaction.Indeed, despite Kemp’s protestations otherwise, Hard-Fi’s second album almost strains itself to deal with international politics and the dangers of social exclusion. It almost seems that this second album is exaggerating what simply came naturally to the “chavs from Staines” the first time round. Will the band’s changing sound alienate their existing fans? Kemp doesn’t think so – the album is already #1. Still, as Hard-Fi have discovered from the controversy over their album cover, sometimes people prefer the familiar to bold, sweeping artistic statements or ‘digital age’ proclamations.