The Ship's Piano is an album of subtle, drifting piano ballads written by Darren Hayman while he was recuperating from a fractured skull. In Darren's own words:
“In November 2009, I had this thing happen to me, where I ended up in hospital with a fractured skull. For a few months I felt constantly dizzy and was diagnosed with some deafness in one ear. Sharp, loud noises bothered me greatly. I was told to rest and do nothing; but who knows how to do that?
“Music always helps when I’m ill, so I started to make the simplest, quietest music to help me recuperate. I tried to make the music that I wanted to hear, which is perhaps what we should always do, but in this case there was a direct therapeutic need.
“I avoided any jagged edges. I kept imagining the sounds I wanted as round and smooth, like well-worn pebbles.
“Lyrically, I also found myself eschewing conceptual and metaphoric character-led songs. I started to write the simplest and most direct words in the first person, something I have avoided for a few years.
“If you are a songwriter and something bad happens to you, people say, “You can write a song about it at least.” They mean well, but the big events in life have to seep out gradually with me and not in urgent, confessional bursts. The songs on this record are pleas for calm. As I get older I find I prefer small, quiet things.
“All the songs were written on my ship’s piano. ‘Ship’s Piano’ is a colloquial term given to small-scale pianos that were used on boats. Mine was built in France in 1933 and folds away to resemble a sideboard. I wrote a song where I imagine its history. It’s called ‘The Ship’s Piano’.”
Spared the 'national treasure' nametag that seems to have pricked the ambitions of some of his more illustrious contemporaries, Darren Hayman has nonetheless spent the decade since Hefner called it a day by cementing his reputation as a quite unique talent. 'The Ship's Piano' finds him at the very top of his game - understated, awkward and not always quite in tune, opener 'I Taught You How To Dance' is a tender little song that makes you quiver to be alive. The chorus, "a little hesitation / you brushed your hips on mine / a little too much wine", is classic Hayman: never quite graceful, but still quite brilliant. 8/10.
After being mugged, roughed up and generally given a right good seeing to after a gig in 2009, Darren Hayman’s hearing went. Not in the Beethoven sense, thankfully, but it was still significant. Loud noises became nightmarish squalls to bear grudgingly rather than reasons to jump about and thrash a Telecaster, as they previously were. Retreating and recuperating, he set about composing The Ship’s Piano, a series of story-songs composed on a 1933 fold-away piano, the like of which used to be found crammed into the corners of seafaring parlours. And while it is very gentle throughout (a descriptor that could quite often be applied to Hayman), it is one of the most rewarding albums he’s made in recent years. Of course, that’s akin to describing it as the shiniest war medal.
The gentlest number on here, Old House, marks a return to a style of personal songwriting that Hayman has left dormant for some years now. Exquisitely drawing its pictures with little more than the piano, a whispering mandolin and trumpet, it contains details so minute you’d think them pointless, but each meticulous one is a piece in the puzzle. "Where were you when the roof tiles let the rain through?" bemoans Hayman of an absent partner, before concluding that "my heart’s with the keys by the door". The sense of isolation is nagging, almost painful in the lyrics, but the warmth of the sound perfectly halts it before it gets anywhere near dreariness.
Elsewhere, too, are numerous wonderful examples of the bare craft necessitated by Hayman’s recuperation. I Taught You How to Dance, for example, is sweet and silly, but still has that slightly awkward sexual confusion he’s honed. The album’s title-track breaks from the more personal tack of many of the songs, however, detailing an imagined history of the ship’s piano itself. From origins in France to the more Hayman-esque ground of Bethnal Green and beyond, it is indeed a ripe tale of music and sadness (particularly the image of the piano being used for a drinks table at a funeral). Downbeat images are something Hayman has had no trouble in conjuring while seated at this instrument.
The notion that the instrument itself, as well as the muggy-headed circumstances of its quiet birth, has informed The Ship’s Piano is extremely attractive. Indeed, the meandering music is some of Hayman’s dreamiest yet. But a telling return to more personal stories, imagined or otherwise, makes it uniquely intimate and very satisfying.
Recuperating from a fractured skull, compulsive songwriter Darren Hayman still needed to get the songs out but found he couldn't bear loud noises or jagged edges. In an effort to round out the rockier edges of his backing band The Secondary Modern, Hayman found himself recording with tinkling ivories and the quietest of drums. At times The Ship's Piano seems like one long love letter, I Taught You How To Dance, It's Easy To Hang With You and Think It Through laced with sentiment and heartfelt thanks for life's greatest gift. With his 30-track January Songs project also due, it's galling that Hayman can churn out such high quality so often.
The former frontman of Hefner, the band that defined the late 90s schmindie scene, Darren Hayman has hit a creative purple patch on reaching middle age. In his second album of the year (the first, January Songs, was written and recorded at the rate of a track a day in January) the titular instrument is the star, augmented by low-key drums, an occasional trumpet and Hayman's keening vocals. It's the unlikely product of a fractured skull, which left the singer-songwriter unable to tolerate loud noises. Happily, the knock to the head didn't dull Hayman's way with words - his lyrics are as literate, bitchy and fey as ever. A treat for the paid-up members of his cultish fanbase, The Ship's Piano is an intimate, home-recorded piece that feels like a private performance.
It's been a remarkably busy year for Darren Hayman. First off there was the audacious January Songs project consisting of a song a day for the whole of the month, then former band Hefner's back catalogue was re-released and the remaining material from the Essex Arms sessions was gathered together. He's been so busy that this entire review could easily be taken up with his recent achievements and projects. Most artists would use the remaining spare time as an opportunity to put their feet up, but instead we are treated to another release.
And we wouldn't blame him for taking things easily. In November 2009 Hayman was mugged in a random attack leaving him with a fractured skull. The after-effects of this caused some deafness, and if that wasn't enough for a recording artist, an aversion to loud, sharp noises. All of which makes his work rate seem even more impressive.
The Ship's Piano is born from the understandable need to explore gentler music. In Hayman's own words: “I kept imagining the sounds I wanted as round and smooth, like well-worn pebbles.” All of these songs are played on a small-scale piano colloquially referred to as a Ship's Piano. The result is a quiet, contemplative disc that marries these simplistic melodies with a more direct lyrical style. There's a sense of reconnection running throughout the album; one song's chorus contains the lyric “I forgot how easy it is to hang out with you.”
The album kicks off with I Taught You How To Dance and Old House - both playful and infused with the wistful melancholy of Hayman's vocals. Then comes the deceptively childlike candyfloss lullaby of Cuckoo. The brief instrumental Know Your Place is great and the slow gentle rambling of Take a Breather reminds us that the album's insistence on a simple approach doesn't make for shallow songs. The plan may be different this time around but there is still a welcome complexity hidden below the surface.
The album concludes with an emotional piece of imagination where Hayman sings the history of the eponymous Ship's Piano. It's difficult to suppress a tear as its fictitious history gradually unfolds and giving the instrument a personality of its own is a worthy acknowledgement of the ship's piano's integral contribution to the disc.
With little in the way of instrumentation and production tricks there's a rich atmosphere of intimacy running through the album and it's difficult not to take a shine to this no-nonsense approach. The Ship's Piano doesn't take you on the maritime journey you'd expect but rather to a late-night bar of romantic lost souls, the heartbroken and the bedraggled. This effective and warm album's benefits should be felt further afield than as Hayman's own therapy. 4/5.
In 2009, Darren Hayman was attacked in a car park, as he loaded his gear back into his car after a show in Nottingham. He left hospital with head injuries which made listening to loud music impossible.
Although unable to bear drums and feedback, Hayman couldn’t resist writing songs. He found that concentrating on songwriting was the best way to not concentrate on his headaches. Having recently acquired a fold-up piano, the kind you would have found in the bar of a ferry a century ago, he composed a set of songs on it.
The resulting album was recorded, for the most part, by Hayman alone, at home. Two songs were recorded at Soup Studios, a regular haunt and two more were recorded at a Salvation Army Hall in Canterbury. It’s no coincidence that these are the songs on which a small guest cast adorn Hayman’s piano ballads with a little more instrumentation.
Much of Hayman’s recent work explores what can be done within a pre-defined set of limits. Last year’s 'Essex Arms', for example, contains no amplification. But The Ship’s Piano never feels like a writing exercise. Instead, Hayman emerges with a set of love songs, gently melodic and keenly observed. Fans of earlier compositions like 'Your Head to Your Toes' or 'The National Canine Defence League' will find much of a similar vintage here.
His piano playing is competent, but don’t expect any Ben Folds impersonations. Hayman keeps it simple, much like John Lennon tended to. Splashes from his collection of vintage synths give the downtempo ballad 'Take a Breather' a little colour,
Starting with a single break of a cymbal, and one of the few songs on the album to feature any significant percussion, 'I Taught You How To Dance' is a career highlight. A lilting, melody, this simple song about a couple of the dancefloor, it might be too sweet for some tastes. But, in homing on the awkward details, it’s the kind of off kilter love song he’s excelled at for years.
'It’s Easy 'o Hang With You' is a twist on the jilted-lover theme so common on Hefner albums, with Hayman detailing an upturn in a long term relationship. Its a song that would have fit nicely on Hefner’s 'We Love the City'.
This album marks a break in a trilogy of conceptual albums all set in Essex, with the final part to be themed on the Witch Trials. It comes in the same year that he began by recording 31 songs in a single month, and just two months before he releases a set of 'Christmas Songs'.
His productivity and imagination have helped Hayman get some attention from a music press that seemed to have cruelly forgotten all about him a few years ago. But, on ‘The Ship’s Piano’, there isn’t a trace of the conceptual. This album is a simple set of songs, carefully written and even more carefully recorded. Modest in comparison with his more ambitious projects, yes, but warm and inviting – transcending the unhappy circumstances of its birth. Its direct, lovelorn, first-person lyrics make it the best place for anyone who liked Hefner but hasn’t sailed with Hayman since to climb back on board.
Hayman’s new attentive and unhurried album, ‘The Ship’s Piano’, can only be described as being like a reassuring embrace from an old friend. Almost by stealth, the calming, yet touching, delectable numbers progressively build into moving tributes to romance.
Quintessentially English, the poetic, insightful and veracious language on show, flows effortlessly over dampened, but effective, sparsely laid down backing tracks. A direct result of Hayman’s injuries – sustained from a viscous mugging and assault in 2009 – his hearing problems make certain frequencies and loud sounds punishing to the ear. This 11-track LP is a direct result of his long recuperation, and adoption of a softer, more yielding sound. Of course the former Hefner front man, solo artist, and leader of The Secondary Modern, Hayman has been used to adjusting and fine-tuning.
Muse, or, centerpiece to this latest venture is the atavistic, one-time ship’s, 1933 fold away piano of the title: a handed-down instrument of antiquity, touched and practiced on by a purview succession of characters; as played out on the affectionate title ode. It’s deft tones, cadence, and rich textures can be heard on all the perfectly pitched compositions and perspicacious reflected renderings. Though numerous, highlights include the foot-shuffling romantic joy of ‘I Taught You How To Dance’ – an endearing melodious waltz, filled with tender nuanced descriptions like, “We were simply grooving/the hipsters started laughing/the way that we were moving/a little out of time” – the, surprisingly, Eno-esque ‘Cuckoo’, and soothing Sparklehorse atmospheric love paean, ‘It’s Easy To Hang With You’.
Hayman has, beyond doubt, composed a down-played, pronounced and hushed minor opus. One of the year’s slow-burners.
(God Is In The TV)
Darren Hayman may well be the busiest man in indie pop (not a perfect genre label for him, but it’ll do). He recorded an song a day in January, oversaw the Hefner re-release programme, worked on the Vostok 5 album and exhibition and has a string of forthcoming releases planned out. His latest release is a quiet and thoughtful set of songs played on a ship’s piano, a cheap folding piano that was used on-board boats prior to arriving in Hayman’s possession.
The album comes with a back story, that of an attack that Hayman suffered in November 2009. This attack left him with physical injuries (a fractured skull) and a need for quiet music to help in his recuperation. This album is the output of that need, and is a soft, understated, calm and (in Hayman’s words) “…round and smooth like well worn pebbles”.
Opener ‘I Taught You How To Dance’ has all the trademarks of a classic Hayman love-song, the slightly awkward honesty would sit comfortably on any of his early Hefner records. The arrangement is just lovely, vocals, piano and soft drumwith a Steve Pretty trumpet solo lifting the middle section.
‘Old House’ is even more plaintive, and the lyric “My hearts with the keys by the door” is as effecting as anything he has written. ‘Cuckoo’ is another slow burning love song, but in the context of this album it is loud and lively, a chorus of friends adding their voices in the coda.
The album is less obviously thematic lyrically than his other recent albums (excepting the January Songs project) although love and relationships make up the bulk of the songs here, and few songwriters depict relationships better. Musically it is one of the most cohesive works of his career, his voice and the piano are at the centre of every song and that makes for exactly the kind of calm, smooth and therapeutic listen that he craved.
‘Know Your Place’ and ‘Clown Sky’ are both atmospheric (although very different) instrumentals, and demonstrate that a career in independent film soundtracks could beckon if he decided to add another string to his musical bow.
There really isn’t a bad (or less than good) track on the album, and to individually review each and every track on the album would make for a very dull read. Regular visitors to this site will know that we rate his work very highly, he has sat high in every one of our end of year charts. So to say that this album sits up with his best work is high praise, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes the end of year chart yet again. 9/10.
A calm, controlled response to that horrendous Nottingham mugging in 2009, 'The Ship’s Piano' details Hayman’s temporarily crushed and subdued persona recuperating and bouncing back. The record involves an entirely comprehendible change: the Hefner man’s skull was left fractured and as a result, suffering from dizziness and deafness in one ear, he was unable to stand the heavier amplified guitars of old; consequentially this is an album centred on voice and fold-out piano almost sole. It’s all direct straightforward ditties about love, despair and recovery, but it’s an album that’s also lucid, guileless and easy on the ear. Indeed this may well be his best work since the Hefner days – a coolly defiant two-fingers if ever there was one (were two?!).
All these songs were written on his ‘ship’s piano’ (a colloquial term which refers to small-scale pianos that were used on boats). The placid title track in fact elicits a swaying cruise-liner as though Hayman were our highbrow bingo-equivalent aboard ship. His whistleable melody line is only propped up by trouble-free piano chords and reclusive drum patters but there’s something inherently alluring and attention-snatching about it. Its stark simplicity and dark one-liners such as ‘there was no piano at the funeral, just a place to rest the wine’ recall a stripped-back ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’-era Belle & Seb and succeed in giving me the shivers.
The album doesn’t really venture into pastures new elsewhere. Tender and down-tempo throughout, his certain tristesse perpetually mills around: be it the heartache and loneliness of ‘Old House’ or the lovelorn ‘Josephine’. Opener ‘I Taught You How To Dance’, however, epitomises what Hayman does best: uncomfortable and black humorous love songs. And despite his reversion to simpler lyricisms and first person anecdotes, Hayman still sounds like his usual articulate and glib, wry and macabre self. He recently declared that "[He] kept imagining the sounds [he] wanted as round and smooth, like well-worn pebbles." And he’s right – the album as a whole is sanded and rounded, well-worn and complete. Yes - it’s slightly monotonous in places - but all in all ‘The Ship’s Piano’ is a rewarding, introspective listen from one of the UK’s most under-appreciated singer-songwriters. All aboard, then. 8/10.
(This Is Fake DIY)
It has been fairly well documented that in November 2009 Darren Hayman was badly beaten up whilst on a short tour of the UK, and he suffered a fractured skull and a period in hospital as a result. The fall-out from that incident has not dented his gift for prolific songwriting – this album is an additional piece of work to '31 Songs', his successful song-a-day effort from January this year – but the attack did give him partial deafness and an inability to cope with loud transient sounds.
The Ship’s Piano is a musical response to that attack, though none of the songs are directly about it. Essentially this is the music that Darren made for his own therapy; in his own words it sounds “round and smooth, without jagged edges.” It has a lot in common with the reflective, slower songs of Darren's old band, Hefner, but steers clear of the lively indie-pop that is often associated with them.
All of the songs were written on his own “ship’s piano”, which is basically a tiny rudimentary upright piano with a five octave keyboard that folds away like an ironing board to save space. Due to its design it struggles with low notes, resulting in a slightly duller, warmer sound than a grand piano, for instance.
'I Taught You How to Dance' is the opening track, and that piano sound is the first thing you hear, easing you in very gently. The lyrics paint a lovely vivid picture, harking back to an earlier time. It's a tender story of a couple learning to dance, feeling a bit awkward and getting laughed at by the hipsters– the bit where he sings “I held on all night, you held on all night” is so touching. The singer has found some comfort, has found a safe place, and neither of them want to let that go. It certainly sounds like a subtle, almost subconscious reaction to what has happened to him. The other instrumentation is simple and effective; brushes on the drums, some analogue synths in the background and a lovely muted trumpet refrain. These are the main instruments used on the album, though when the synths become more prominent on songs like 'It's Easy to Hang with You' with its drifting spacey backdrop; it actually feels like a mellower 'Dead Media'-era Hefner.
There are sad songs ('Old House' documents things that are gone in heartbreakingly minute detail), amusing songs ('Cuckoo') and a couple of atmospheric instrumental pieces ('Clown Sky' and 'Know Your Place'). Overall it works both as a set of fine songs, and also as a mood piece. As Darren says in his press release “The songs on this record are pleas for calm. As I get older I find I prefer small, quiet things.” Those words are echoed here in the minimal arrangements and overall warmth of the sound, but also in the attention to little details in the lyrics. 'Take a Breather' is really lovely, maybe the most perfectly pitched in terms of mixing all those elements, it is superb songwriting.
On 'Think It Through', just when you are letting that simple piano wash over you, the lyrics reel you back in. This seems to be the most direct reference to what happened to him last year. “I'll think it through while the fists fly and the skin tears from the knuckle”. Again muted trumpet adds a beautiful melancholy air.
In an album packed with great lyrics ‘Oh Josephine’ has my pick of the bunch. "She was the kind of girl who never wore a skirt/ she was the kind of girl that lazy words would hurt", deserves some sort of prize I think. Throughout his career Darren has a skill of putting remarkable lines in pop songs, and there are many more examples of that throughout this album.
Closing track, ‘The Ship’s Piano’, is a wonderful story song about the long life of the piano and all its owners. He details how it moved between various families, from Paris in 1933 via Bethnal Green in 1962 and then subsequently the North-east of England, and it’s pretty special. He sums up the unique adaptability of such a piano in a single line - “there was no piano at the funeral, just a place to rest the wine”. When the music stops it can be folded away.
In coming to terms with his own suffering, Darren Hayman has made the music he wanted to hear. Even better, he has created an album which sits comfortably alongside his very best work and underlines his status as one of the finest songwriters around. 8/10.
Written during a period where Darren Hayman was suffering the after-effects of a fractured skull, and thus a little sensitive to noise, The Ship’s Piano is a relatively quiet and peaceful collection of songs. Putting together music on a small, old piano that was originally used on a boat (hence the album title), most of the tracks on offer move at a steady pace, combining starry keys and soft percussive work with Hayman’s innocent vocals.
He talks of the creation of the album as coming out of a “direct therapeutic need”, and there is certainly something quite comforting about this collection, as though you can feel the pain being exorcised as songs like ‘It’s Easy To Hang With You’ wrap you up in a quilt of swirling ambience and vocal harmonies. ‘Take A Breather’ is a sweet and delicate little piece, just simple piano melodies and playful synth sounds that make you want to do exactly as the song says. The Ship’s Piano is surely one of the most beautiful and enjoyable albums the former Hefner frontman has produced in the last few years, coming at a time when he has been creatively busier than ever. 7/10.
(The Digital Fix)
“On March the twenty-third, she said something so absurd, she said: you love to be in love but you never really love.” So Darren Hayman sang as lead singer of Hefner a little over ten years ago on their seminal album We Love The City. Hayman – or at least his persona on his early records – is a devotee to the idea of love. He’s in love with the city, maybe, but all he has for anyone else is young lust.
It’s with some audacity, then, that in 2011 Hayman releases The Ship’s Piano. It’s unashamedly an album of love songs and, what’s more surprising, an album of maturity, an album with the persona of someone that the Darren Hayman of Hefner probably never thought he’d become: an adult. It’s slow, delicate, piano-led (barely a guitar or banjo is sight), romantic, nostalgic and whimsical. And, above all else, it’s brilliant.
Like most of Hayman’s releases the thing that sets him apart from other writers of a similar ilk is the specifity of his lyrics: all the characters are named, they’re people with histories, with addresses, post codes. Take the album’s finale and title track, ‘The Ship’s Piano’. It’s a love song, sung to a piano. We hear how the piano was made, where it was played, how the people around it fall in love. We hear about the funeral from which it was absent, about the shed in which it gathers dust. It’s one of the best songs I’ve heard all year.
I’m going to resist the urge to finish this review by quoting all the stunning lines on this record. I’m discovering new ones every time I listen to it – and new meanings in the lines I liked the first time. I just noticed, for example, that there is a track, ‘No Children’, that must surely be a sneaky reference to the Mountain Goats song of the same name. And whilst writing I realised that there’s an even sneakier (maybe even unintentional) pun in the album title. “Piano”, from Italian, means ‘quiet’, it means hushed – the ship is piano, it is quiet, things are settling down, being brought to rest. It’s an image that I think sums up this album as well as anything could.
(For Folk's Sake)
Do you remember the moment you became emotionally immune to the thrill of watching bright lights flicker across the night sky? It is, as pivotal moments go, a real shit: say ta’ra to backseat car rides of an evening, gawping into the abyss as highfalutin thoughts abound of lasers and magic and creating tentacled offspring with purple UFOs; and hello to fascination-maturity, the astrological wonder of yore scarcely returning to remind you it shone in the first place. The music of Darren Hayman is like when, ten years down the line, there’s a shooting star or meteor shower or just a really jeffing superbly bright thing up there, and suddenly all the trinkets of childish fascination you abandoned become interesting again. And you have to hand it to him: beyond turning up on your doorstep with a long-forgotten childhood sweetheart and her willing hand in marriage, that’s effectively as much as you can ask for from a largely solo recording artist.
Except, well, instead of reigniting intrigue around lasers and magic and creating purple offspring with UFOs, Hayman’s more likely to be yabbering about, like, chatting to old friends and making silly twentysomething mistakes and creating gap-toothed offspring with needy members of the opposite sex. Which perhaps isn’t the most tantalising prospect, and yet the Walthamstow-dweller - who was not, you suspect, the most popular kid in his class - evidently has a peculiar way with a grown-up heart. What his domestic greys are tinged with is the strangely poignant sparkle that tends to be spat up by otherwise unspectacular lives.
“We were simply grooving / The hipsters started laughing
The way that we were moving / A little out of time...
A little hesitation / You brushed your hips on mine / A little too much wine
I held on all night / You held on all night”
That, opener ‘I Taught You How to Dance’, is for better or worse typical of The Ship’s Piano (a colloquial term for the type of small-scale piano these songs were written on) in that it’s almost staple Fidelity Wars Darren H material. Since unicycling along the tightrope between naivety and insight with that record’s authors Hefner, the chap’s become diametrically opposed to the Holden Caulfield archetype you fear he might have fallen well deep into. So what’s interesting is that, upon giving the ’new town’ focus of his last couple of records with the Secondary Modern a rest, he’s returned to write songs about loneliness (’Old House’) and “the kind of girl who never wore a skirt” (’Josephine’) and ’serious’ - joylessly serious - relationships (’Take a Breather’). You know, the usual stuff.
But let’s not rush into aligning The Ship’s Piano - a record you’d be forgiven for considering a stopgap before Essex III: Return of the Secondary Modern - with its rich genetic heritage. Unlike the Essex Trilogy, and really anything Hayman’s released through his various guises, the record has a highly intimate, minimal setup. Which works, sure - and perhaps gives this a broader appeal than its recent predecessors - but man-and-piano arrangements aren’t necessarily the most natural environment for Hayman’s ratty mew. Admittedly this development would be more worrying if it hadn’t been logistically necessary. During recording, Hayman was cooped up in bed, having been assaulted after a gig in Nottingham in late 2009, and The Ship’s Piano - which follows his January Songs project, itself due a deluxe full-release in January 2012 - started out as simply a way of passing time without exerting too much energy. Which needn’t be fundamentally problematic in terms of listening to the thing, but in fairness it probably shows: even sidelining the fact most of the pianos here sound like they have just ambled home to their wife after 24 hours’ drinking Courvoisier in a local sex bar with plumes of Camel cigarette smoke and tattooed drug-wenches growing on trees (not to mention discomfitingly brutal lyrics like “Are you worried? / I am worried too / Don’t let it beat you black and blue / Or split your head in two” on the sweetly lilting ’Cuckoo’, and yet more direct, “I’ll think it through whilst the fists fly / And the skin tears from the knuckle” from retirement-baiting ’Think it Through’), this fourth LP is also possessed of an odds-and-ends kinda feel; soldered together by the singular circumstances of its recording, rather than any binding thematic intricacies.
But what does that matter to the casual newcomer, undaunted by overbearing expectations? S’no biggie - while a cynical argument might linger that the guy seems to wish/believe the key to every low self-esteemed lady’s immortal happiness sits in his sweaty Brentwood palm, there are surely few who’d put the guy’s poetic way with an ’our song’-making turn of phrase to the sword. Nonetheless there is, sadly, a nagging sense that for this particular record’s swelteringly lofty highs (self-explanatory platonic love song ’It’s Easy to Hang With You’ being another), Hayman’s insistence on recording the album he says he “wanted to hear,” after the awful affair of being beaten to a whimpering pulp, has knocked a lick of its wry fire out.
But in the main The Ship’s Piano does the man’s old trick like magic: if he is not a touter of wordy bells-and-whistles, Hayman is regardless a master of simultaneously writing powerfully and underwhelmingly. And if he’s not yet unanimously considered the greatest cardigan-stylee speccy-sporting dweeby loser type songwriter-man of recent decades, he’s surely on his miserable, merry way. 7/10.
(Drowned In Sound)
Piano and a minimal drum/bass/vibes backing is the thread that links the songs on 'The SHips Piano'. The production is sparing and has an agreeable acoustic ambience to it, the songs sounding as if they were done in one take in an extensively carpeted studio lounge. Alright tunes too, although the tone remains determinedly soporific and, while the overall effect is gently mellow and the production captures the keyboard textures of Hayman's piano in some smoothly silken depth, it's the vocal that provides the actual counterpoint to that most prominent feature of the album.
Really, and Darren Hayman is on one or two of his songs audibly aware of this, it's the vocal that is the one weak aspect of the album. Hayman's voice never really matches the instrumentation, and while it's impossible to fault his musicality, his voice cracks when it should soar and the album would work so much more succesfully with another vocalist to carry the gently breezing melodies. As it is, 'The Ships Piano' is an album I enjoyed hearing more than I expected I would, which says much about the musicianship. I could listen to Darren Hayman's piano playing for an hour or two, although I realised that's what I was listening to, and disregarding the singing. Anyone who thinks Chris Martin is one of our finest male vocalists of the last decade will inevitably disagree with me, although Darren Hayman and his backing band can congratulate themselves on the quality of their playing throughout.
Darren Hayman may not be challenging Adele for the most sales in 2011 but he certainly hasn’t let a comparative lack of mass appeal stop him from continuing to make ever more music, both old and new, available. Always a productive chap, even he has stepped up a gear in 2011. So far he has delivered a tune a day for a month (January Songs, available via Bandcamp), a collection of outtakes and demos from last year’s Essex Arms (The Green and the Grey), a double CD re-release of the final Hefner album (Dead Media) and a collaboration with others that celebrates space travel (Vostok 5). Well if there’s any chalk left after marking up that little lot, you’ll soon be close to scratching the board with your fingernails as he’s notched up one more. The Ship’s Piano is the product of sessions that followed a violent attack in Nottingham in 2009 which resulted in a fractured skull. Still suffering from a partial deafness which left him in severe discomfort in noisy environments, but seeking a sonic route to recovery, Hayman decided to record, turning the amps off and restricting the accompaniment to just strings, keys and a subdued trumpet. The outcome is a selection of gentle ballads that while musically simple, deliver highly as always courtesy of the clever lyrics. Few can match Hayman’s ability to capture the tingle or awkwardness of new relationships or the sad breakdown of old ones but here he also speculates as to the history of the very piano used for the sessions (an old upright French one, similar to those found on ships) with equally charming results. Once again, the old English romantic has nailed it.