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Local songwriter Ben Hardt comes with strings attached

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Ben Hardt
Ben Hardt and His Symphony
SELF-RELEASED

I'd just had my mind blown by the filmic strings of Scott Walker's 1969 album Scott 4 when I reached for the similarly string-quartet-driven debut by Ben Hardt, best known locally for his work with pop-rock outfit Like Summer. Yet the blueprint for Ben Hardt and His Symphony doesn't seem so much Walker as the orchestral rush of Richard Ashcroft's underrated solo albums.

Strings seldom rock, so having them as primary instruments on mostly rock songs -- and on Hardt's debut outing -- seems a gutsy move. Also strange is the back story: a World War II romance set in war-torn London, spelled out in the liner notes, yet not entirely necessary to appreciate the six songs and scattered interludes.

After opening with a period clip from an Edward R. Murrow war broadcast, things get started with "Come On, Come On," an impassioned rocker along the lines of the aforementioned Ashcroft. Acoustic love songs "Waltz No. 1" and "Wake Up, Beautiful" steer the record into more "romantic" territory, with strings arranged and directed by Chris Massa, before Hardt crashes into "Runaway" with echoing guitars reminiscent of U2's War.

A lot of the lyrics seem to depend on Hardt's muse being "beautiful" -- a nice thought, but it doesn't really tell us much about her. Beautiful how? Why? Is this person beautiful intrinsically, or in spite of herself -- transcendently?

By the closer, "Looking Up While the Bombs Fall Down," it becomes clear that the unspoken but overarching issue in this recording is the tension between the sweeping, yet conventional beauty of the strings and Hardt's unvarnished rock voice, presented here in its natural rough texture, with knots and cracks and ragged edges. Again, a risky choice, but to me, the most satisfying quality of this batch of songs. As he sings at the album's end, "And if I failed, at least I tried to cast off all my crowns." I like the way this man operates.

Ben Hardt and His Symphony CD Release, with Triggers and Like Summer. 7 p.m. Sat., May 5 (doors at 5 p.m.). Diesel, 1601 E. Carson St., South Side. $7. All ages. 412-431-8800 or www.dieselpgh.com

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