I've been on the fence about this disc for a couple of weeks. I finally came down when I realized that it's a grower. Ant (Antony Harding) is Hefner's drummer and a songsmith in his own right. His voice is quite fragile compared to Darren's, but it goes well with his stories. He has a just in tune, borderline endearing way of singing, which fits in with his naturalistic, homemade pop. He gets some help from Hefner bassist John Morrison. Suzanne Rhatigan from previous solo efforts provides similar backing vocals to the title track. He gets off to a good start, but he hits his stride on the second half of the disc. There's minimal drum machine use in the mix of subtle poppy keyboards with spare arrangements of acoustic guitar, ukulele, banjo and balalaika, quiet bass, handheld percussion and harmonica. These tracks cover some well known Hefner themes. Aching over someone seems like his specialty.
'The Trick' opens the album with acoustic guitar and drum machine and has a deferential stance. 'May I stay out of your way when I've nothing nice to say, well I'm sorry... how d'you know when to go, it's a trick I'd like to know, well I'm listening..' It has delicate pacing, which runs through the rest of the disc and he sounds shy here.
'Maybe love will return' has a nice rhythm from gently played congas and egg shaker percussion that complement his strumming. Some of the lyrics towards the end of the track are Hefneresque, but with a quieter delivery; '...I love your smile... your skin cream when you dress in the morning when your tongue dances around my mouth... tell me it'll be okay..' I do appreciate the graphic honesty. It almost makes me squirm, but I can live with that.
'Any girl can make me smile' is a slower number. It has a missed opportunity theme, but he is struggling with his singing. The instrumentation does compensate for that. The keyboard is more up front and the guitar is in the background. I like the egg shaker percussion here and his harmonica solo is nifty.
'History' is even sadder sounding, as it takes the previous track's theme further, the aftermath of breaking up with someone. I'm not sure if this is a pun, or (I hope) just a lyrical accident 'my heart's not free it sank to the bottom of your sea.. now it flounders' He redeems himself in the chorus 'Without the magic or the chemistry we can only become history without the spark from the edge of the sea we go to part...'.
Track 5 'When I need you to' is where his singing gets wince inducing. He strains to reach most of the notes. I miss his strumming here as it's in the background behind keyboards and drum machine. It's the least naturalistic sounding track, which is why I'm not too fond of it.
He makes a good comeback on 'Waste the days away' which has enough harmonica and egg shaker in it to make you grin. It has a tinkling keyboard part with a Belle and Sebastian feel. It reads like a better version of the Lucksmiths' 'Guess how much I love you' with its long distance, starry eyed aching for someone '..when your eyes shut tight on those lonely nights when I'm miles away..I regret to say I waste the days away..'. This could be my new favorite pining song, sorry Lucksmiths.
Ant gets some help from favorite collaborator Suzanne Rhatigan on the title track 'A long way to blow a kiss'. Her voice is as fragile as his and her Wurlitzer has a warmer sound than his keyboards. This continues the theme of the previous track 'It's a long way to blow a kiss,, and there's always the chance that it will miss..' As this song continues, it takes a Hefneresque turn, but luckily not in a squirm inducing way 'lost in the space of this bed dreams take me to you instead to your window across the sea...'my lucky eyes, lucky lips and my lucky fingertips have been waiting there they do...'
Track 8 'Always hurt the one I love' has a low key start as he reminds himself not to take someone for granted 'I should thank my stars I found her.. she's full of hellos not good byes..I should throw my arms around her..and never bring tears to her eyes..' He uses a warmer keyboard sound, which I prefer, along with his guitar. The song perks up as some warm basslines, the drum machine and a cooler keyboard part. His singing gets strained, but it's covered up by a quiet crescendo.
On track 9, 'Every drop of rain' his voice almost gets lost behind the keyboard and ukelele-banjo, but it manages to come through softly. It sounds like puppy love and he almost seems overwhelmed 'I dream you look at me with eyes of blue and my heart pounds when you do without warning..you follow every drop of rain you are the sun that shines again with each morning..' He gets strident towards the end, hitting his tambourine deliberately as he repeats 'I always see you in everything that I do..'
'Today as yesterday' has a peppy strumming start which gives it a pace that reminds me of 'Mayfly' by Belle and Sebastian. He's reverent here too 'am I awake or stuck in a dream I still cannot be sure until I hear the sound of your key in the front door.... falling, taking all your time adoring each way you make me smile...falling smiling away today as yesterday..' and he mixes in his balailaka, egg shaker and maracas as he repeats the chorus towards the end.
The last track, 'April rain' has him in the long distance pining seat, turning the Lucksmiths on their heads. It begins with a sad sounding keyboard and drum machine as he wishes for a return '...to whisk her homesick thoughts far away to where she longs to be..' and alternates that with letting go 'let her phone ring when she's tired of me...' As he builds towards the chorus 'don't let your sunny face cloud over don't let you tears fall like April rain...' he adds a happier keyboard riff and overdubs his voice ending on a hopeful note.
I like his approach on this disc but I wish he had varied the instruments more. Fave tracks: 1, 6-10