Darren Hayman and the Secondary Modern - Essex Arms Album
TRACKLISTING:1. Be Lonely
2. Calling Out Your Name Again
3. Two Tree Island
4. Winter Makes You Want Me More
5. Super Kings
6. Cocoa Butter
7. Dagenham Ford
8. I'll Be Your Alibi
9. Spiderman Beats Ironman
10. Drive Too Fast
11. Plastic And Steel
The new album from ex-Hefner man Darren Hayman and his band of folk-rock renegades is their finest work to date
Essex Arms is the new album by Darren Hayman And The Secondary Modern. Darren, of course, is best known as the singer-songwriter of the phenomenally successful and much-loved Hefner, although it’s worth noting that he has now made six albums to Hefner’s four. In the latest incarnation of the constantly morphing Secondary Modern he has gathered together a set of musicians with the chops to do justice to his increasingly complex and mature songs; a tight, tough, but soulful folk-rock orchestra reminiscent of a more urban Incredible String Band or an Anglicized Lambchop.
The second in a proposed trilogy of albums about Hayman’s home county of Essex, Essex Arms is a conceptual piece about the East Anglian rural underbelly. Whereas Pram Town (2009) dealt with the displacement and ennui of living in a new town (Harlow) – and received the best reviews of Hayman’s post-Hefner career – Essex Arms takes the narrative to the countryside.
“The songs are about love in unloved places,” says Darren. “I wanted to sing about a lawless, hidden version of the countryside, but still treat the subject with tenderness and respect.”
Illicit sex in car parks (‘Cocoa Butter’), staged dog fights in forests (‘I’ll Be Your Alibi’), joyrides (‘Spiderman Beats Ironman’), car crashes (‘Drive Too Fast’, ‘Plastic and Steel’) and the death of industry (‘Dagenham Ford’) are all dealt with, but true love is never far away. Throughout, Hayman’s distinctive estuarine vocals weave his weary, bucolic ballads and slanted rural revelries against an almost baroque, chamber-folk background.
“I was trying to make innovative rock music without the use of electrically amplified instruments. I wanted oboes and harmoniums to take the place of synthesizers and samplers, to make something purely acoustic that wasn’t polite or ineffectual.”
Featuring contributions from The Wave Pictures, Fanfarlo and, on the single ‘Calling Out Your Name’, a duet with Emmy the Great, Essex Arms achieves all that and more as Hayman paints his pictures of love and squalor in the fields and lanes on the edge of London, in the process reaffirming his credentials as one of Britain’s finest living songwriters.
"Hayman's post-Hefner peak" Uncut (4/5)
"Shouldn't Hayman have won some sort of award by now?" Stewart Lee, The Sunday Times (4/5)
"One of our great underrated songwriters" Artrocker (5/5)
"Another wittily observed winner from the Dazzler" The Stool Pigeon (4/5)
It’s been a funny ol’ time to box up my post-grad crap and scuttle back to the Essex badlands. Pockets empty, future blurry - nothing much on the horizon apart from that dirty-dog stretch of Estuary doing its everything to desperately tart up what God gave it and make people forget that all they can really see is Kent’s scuffed hinterlands and a giant, pulsing, whooping-cough cock of a smokestack. Funny, that is, musically speaking. Firstly, John Cooper Clarke was playing at a local pub. To put this in context, it’s sort of like finding something really good amongst lots of things that are really shit. Then, local rag The Evening Echo gave their front page over to the news that Wilco Johnson had bagged a role on the HBO backed Game Of Thrones, before The Guardian topped this by running a sizable feature on These New Puritans in which Hidden is rightly offered up as ‘perhaps the most remarkable album by a British band this year’. AND THEN, as if that wasn’t exciting enough, Darren Hayman releases the second part of his proposed Essex trilogy with Essex Arms, the follow up to 2009’s painfully wonderful and horrendously undervalued ‘Pram Town’. It’s almost enough to make a sick-of-home lad proud.
Before even a note is played, a short passage on the back of the sleeve acts as an evocative overture to Hayman’s heartfelt folk-opera. ‘Welcome to Essex countryside. Beneath the hedgerow and honeysuckle lie rusted barbs and broken glass. There are dogfights in the forest, joyrides past the cornfields, romance inside Vauxhall Novas. Here we find true love’. Which is quite perfect, really, and gets to the very heart of the album in a beautiful beat. Equally, my use of the highly dubious phrase ‘folk-opera’ just then, brings to mind this year’s across-the-board-adored ‘folk-opera’ (it’s getting worse, isn’t it… I won’t say it anymore), Hadestown by Anais Mitchell. You could easily talk about the mismatched state of this juxtaposition - the term should perhaps be applied more loosely to Essex Arms in comparison to the more structured Hadestown, but it was either this or call it a… [clears throat]… ‘concept album’. Certainly the grand nature of Hadestown’s love affair stands in sharp contrast to Darren Hayman’s funny little record about Essex and its lovers, not fit for legend, littering their car floors with crumpled packets of Marlboro light and layers of McDonalds wrappers that act as insulation on winter trips to Lakeside.
But the nature of this album shouldn’t allow it to be waved away, or appreciated, even, merely as a small and quaint record in contrast to the supposed weight of something more overtly epic like Hadestown. Because the music on Essex Arms is an elegant and delicately nuanced acoustic patchwork, enveloping and so lovingly crafted… Some of its tales might be stained nicotine-yellow or concerned with nothing more than the desperation of prolonging an evening that’s slipping away by driving the long way home in a tatty Vauxhall Nova, but there is grace and weight and beauty, nonetheless. Just listen to the exhausted drift of 'Two Tree Island', the half-cut waltz of 'Cocoa Butter' or 'Calling Out Your Name', with its pitter-patter gait and sudden explosion into glorious Technicolor. These are songs that elevate the cracked, the tedious and the quotidian into a form that transcends their lacklustre inspiration, allowing anyone to conclude that Hayman has emphatically achieved his goal of wanting to write about ‘love in unloved places’. He's taken something as innately unromantic as the Essex badlands and treat it with a ‘tenderness and respect’ that eventually allows it to become oddly and startling beautiful.
I’ve probably failed miserably with that opening paragraph, but I honestly was wary of laying on the ‘I’M FROM ESSEX TOO, ME’ schtick too thick, because that could suggest that my high opinion of this record stems only from my unfortunate knowledge of the milieu in focus. But this is honestly far from the truth. Darren Hayman has crafted another remarkable record out of the most unexpected of source materials, but its brilliance will stick even if you don’t get a little thrill of familiarity by hearing him sing, "the Rayleigh boys, will fuck up all of Southend". At a time when Essex’s most prominent cultural representation comes with ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ (Google it, I dare you), quite simply… thank fuck for the genius of Darren Hayman.
(Drowned In Sound 9/10)
Essex Arms marks the return of Darren Hayman. A return to recording since 2009's Pram Town, as well as acting as the first record he's made since being attacked late last year. As a result, as with Edwyn Collins' latest release, it's gratifying just to be listening to the album in the first place.
Intended as a companion piece to Pram Town, the premise of the album according to Darren is "The songs are about love in unloved places. I wanted to sing about a lawless, hidden version of the countryside, but still treat the subject with tenderness and respect." Befitting to an album about rural East Anglia, the album features a stripped-down, acoustically-orientated sound that has more in common with the Great British Holiday EPs collection than the fuller sound of 2007s Table For One.
Be Lonely begins Essex Arms with a piece of beatific melancholia befitting of its title before launching into Calling Out Your Name Again. A startling departure from the downbeat Be Lonely, it's joyous, tuneful and upbeat with boy/girl vocals, and with mentions of barbed wire, pylons, satellite dishes and Vauxhall Novas it shows that Darren's ability to find quirky imagery in the unlikeliest of places remains undiminished. Two Tree Island backs up this claim as mentions of faded coke cans, and polystyrene cups litter footpaths with overgrown signs. According to the man himself, the song is an ode to a notorious local dogging spot, thereby (along with Calling Out Your Name Again) cementing his claim that this album is about love in loveless places.
Cocoa Butter despite its tales of lanes that lead to shame and people you'll never see again is in fact one of the album's more upbeat tracks, musically, recalling bar bands and boozy singalongs not dissimilar to The Pogues at their most wistful. Whilst on the subject of The Pogues, Dagenham Ford (an ode to the local car plant), rivals White City (Shane McGowan's tribute to London's dog racing track, now a BBC complex) to the strangest eulogies to places ever recorded. In a similar vein, Spiderman Beats Ironman is possibly the only song to ever romanticise doing handbrake skids in a Vauxhall Nova while high on cream soda, whilst musically similar to anything on The Wave Pictures' If You Leave It Behind.
Overall, Darren Hayman has more than accomplished his mission statement about love in loveless places and a lawless vision of the East Anglian countryside, and the production and overall feel of the album fit its rural subject wonderfully. His way with lyrics, even after all these years, remains as adept at painting imagery as those of Bruce Springsteen or Jarvis Cocker, and a couplet can make you double take, or ponder for days. As with Edwyn Collins' losing sleep, this record is a triumphant return. Good to have him back? Is it hell. It's pretty damned fantastic.
The prolific Mr. Hayman returns to our stereos with the second instalment in his Essex trilogy – don’t ask – following last year’s Harlow inspired Pram Town. Having received the most positive response to any of this post-Hefner work with Pram Town, one could say expectations have been raised for its follow up. Gladly expectations are fulfilled as Essex Arms not only betters the previous outing but includes several career high ditties.
‘Calling Out Your Name’ is a glorious duet with Emmy the Great, it’s as plucky and carefree as they come, with Hayman’s quintessentially English story-telling guiding us through a tale of love and squalor in the fields on the edge of London.
Elsewhere, ‘Super Kings’ is a touching lament for times gone past sang with typical Hayman flippancy, “throwing tiny pebbles up at your window making you want to come down, I’m so fucking on it, I’m all over that shit no-one is going to hurt you now”. As ever no subject is out of bounds as illicit sex in car parks is mulled over on ‘Cocoa Butter’ with a whimsical charm, and on ‘Spiderman Beats Ironman’ – a raging debate if ever there was one – Hayman croons about the art of joyriding whilst high on Cream Soda, obviously. Charming as ever, chamber-folk-pop never sounded so adorable.