For 12 years now The Rifles have stuck to their guns by not following any fashionable trends or making concessions to commercial demands. Their brand of indie guitar pop-rock may be well out of favour but the remarkably consistent quality of their music has ensured a small but dedicated following. The band have moved away from their early, spikier The Jam-influenced mod style to a more rounded, mellifluous sound, but the north-east Londoners’ essential character has not changed too much.
Their fifth album Big Life is a big record: 18 tracks lasting 60 minutes. In fact, it’s a double album – a concept in itself that looks back to the tradition of classic rock – and though this may be for prestige, for it could all have been squeezed onto one record. Nonetheless, it showcases the band’s finely honed songwriting with its soaring melodies, chiming guitar hooks and sweet vocal harmonies.
The original line-up of Joel Stoker on lead vocals/rhythm guitar, lead guitarist Lucas Crowther, bassist Robert Pyne, drummer Grant Marsh and keyboardist Dean Mumford is still going strong. Like The Rifles’ two previous offerings None The Wiser and Freedom Run, Big Life has been produced by Paul Weller collaborator Charles Rees at Weller’s Black Barn Studio. Continuity rather than innovation is the result.
Lively opener Groundhog Day expresses the longing to be free from an endlessly repetitive crap job on the road: “As the world goes round and round / Another lonely dead end town.” Lead single Numero Uno has an infectious ska beat with the singer always wanting to be on the move: “I just need four wheels / And somewhere else to be.”
The mood turns more reflective with Victoria, about lost love: “I used to live in hope / But now that’s a place down memory road.” And it turns elegiac with Jonny Was A Friend Of Mine, remembering a friend who has died, while the The Kinks-like Young for a Day features folksy acoustic guitar and a children’s choir chanting “Sweet memories” in a song about youth “When time stood still”.
The lushly stringed Big Big Life catalogues places around the globe the singer has visited while he continues to puzzle out his place within it: “I’ve been around this big, big world, / But I can’t figure out this big, big life.” Ska returns in Misunderstood in an edgy track full of frustrated energy with screaming guitar feedback, while the chirpily upbeat Go Do What You Like urges you to “make the best of what you get”. An acoustic version of Victoria accompanied by string quartet closes the album on a quietly yearning note.
Whilst individual songs don’t stand out particularly strongly, there aren’t any obvious fillers either on an album that consolidates what we have come to expect from the band rather than breaks any new ground. Underrated as old-skool tunesmiths, The Rifles hit the target again.