Ex-Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell is one of the few major punk figures of the past 20 years successfully to marry his past to his present. Most of his contemporaries have traded their youthful fire for a more sedate and reflective stance as they move further into middle age; Cornwell has made the conscious decision not to go quietly into that good night and has produced an amazingly satisfying solo catalog as a result. Cornwell's latest solo project, Hi Fi, shows the guitarist in full command of his legacy and simultaneously looking ahead. Three years after his marvelously edgy pop album Black Hair Black Eyes Black Suit (known as Guilty in Europe), Cornwell has created an album that offers the same thrills with an expanded vision. "Leave Me Alone" kicks off the disc with the same musical and lyrical paranoia that became a stock in trade for the Stranglers, while "Miss Teazyweezy" shows his willingness to take up where the late Ian Dury left off. Hi Fi's pinnacle comes with the six-minute masterpiece "The Prison's Going Down," a brilliant tribute to Arthur Lee, one of Cornwell's avowed heroes. The song is not merely a lyrical unraveling of Lee's current criminal-justice problems (eight years in a California prison under the "three strikes" law) but a homage to the sonic magnificence Lee created with Love. Another great moment on Hi Fi is Cornwell's acoustic rendering of the Stranglers' "Golden Brown," a transcendent version of a song he had once deemed impossible to perform live.
Perhaps Cornwell's elevation to punk elder-statesman status is not too traumatic because the Stranglers were always a little less obviously frenetic and a bit more composed than their contemporaries, making the leap from then to now seem less severe. Perhaps it's because he was already older than his compatriots when he formed the Stranglers in the late '70s. Whatever the reason, Cornwell has found a comfortable middle ground where he can exhibit the intensity of his Stranglers days tempered with the wisdom he's accrued in the intervening years.
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