Hefner was a band that spawned from Kent, England in 1992 and matured in London. Darren Hayman, the singer/songwriter and bassist, was the originator of the band while attending art school (yep, another rocker who was in art school). The urban punk/folk/indie band was signed to the coveted Too Pure label (PJ Harvey, Long Fin Killie, Moonshake/Laika, Mouse on Mars) shortly after releasing their first EP in 1996. Fueled by Hayman's lyrics and effeminate falsetto vocals they delivered a catchy, popped-up angst reprise of post-teen explorations of love, lust and a search for meaning as time transitioned centuries. Vocal comparisons and conceptual overlap gave to the inevitable association with the band Violent Femmes. Where the Femmes were more jerky and nervy from religious values clashing with the culture, Hayman was far more poetic, determined, poppy and story telling and more a diarist. The relation I hear is to Elvis Costello and Jonathan Richman (Hefner covered Richman). Hayman's lyrics are not gimmicky or psycho. Hayman's songs are honest, exposing, crafted explorations created and presented through a pop sensibility.
Hayman is now a solo artist. Taking from Hefner the acclaim and moderate indie successes while leaving behind the confines and compromising required to be in a band relationship. A songwriter of high output, often writing 50 songs for an album (10-12 actually used), he writes about odd subjects, the postal service, girlfriends and their cigarette brands, Lee Remick, The National Canine Defense League. But the main subject of his writing is the long list of women and girlfriends that he delves into and reports his findings and the analogous quality of each pursuit. It seems like a dangerous proposition to date Hayman when you may become the theme of his next song. This solo EP chronicles the same territory.
The Spanish label Acuralea (Xiu Xiu, Decemberists, Tara Jane O'Neil, Damon and Naomi, Thalia Zedek) is an apt label to release this solo material. The Madrid based label tends to put out lyircal and examining artists who are rising or are moving from more recognized bands and sounds. This is their second EP release by Hayman. The thin, paper EP has an ochre and sepia inking of a comic as its overall graphics. The comic was created by Darren when was 11-12 years old. Reflecting the fears of those times it is the story of the future, year 2000AD, and the need for a hero after nuclear holocaust. Even as a young man, Darren had a penchant for the dramatic. Appearing on the CD is Antony Harding who was the drummer and first to join Hayman to form Hefner. John Lee appears as the acoustic guitarist and comes from the bluegrass band side project, Hayman, Watkins, Trout and Lee. From the credits one infers that Hayman only handles the vocals and songwriting.
The EP begins with stunted echoing electronics and drum machine. Leave Your Shoes On takes on an immediate and different turn with a calmer "Watching the Detectives" drum beat, banjo and spare drumming deriving from Hayman's touch and taste for bluegrass. Hayman's vocals enter and sound just as they did in early days of Hefner. The difference here is that he is less inflected and at ease. A tongue-in-cheek reference and nod to the Tom Jones classic, You Can Leave Your Hat On, Hayman reveals an enjoyment of clothing fetishism and its aid in increasing his sexual strength and pleasure. The track richens with harmonium (ala-Clinic), banjo, guitar and bass. It is an odd, eclectic mix of instrumentation that is very endearing and works on various listening levels to entertain ones ears and appetite. Hayman's identifiable vocal style makes the Hefner comparison unavoidable but this is more Elephant 6's Olivia Tremor Control then his pop past.
The Light In Her Room has a casual start of talking in the control room and then innocent guitar and quiet drums. Hayman's vocals enter and are now more serious and emotional. Singing of the examinations in the surroundings of "her" room. There is a lilting boredom to the chorus with its La-La-La-ing. The plucky guitar is from the Penguin Cafe and it eases into a sweet and spacey electronic wash and fades out. This is nice composition. It is a subdued song with a light grip.
Crissy M is the most Hefner-like track on the EP. It sounds almost like a Hefner song reworked and slowed down. Sentimental piano intros to a lamentation of porn star Crissy Moran. Singing in a sad, sweet, fantastical arrangement, Hayman explores the look of, and acts performed on, Crissy M. An ode to the stars professionalism it reveals how bored she is "because her hearts not in it and never really was. She's not a dirty slut". There are some great lyrics here. Innocence matches up with jaded reality. Imagination is a coping skill and clashes with the true experience of her years of screwing on film. We are also confronted with our own acknowledgement of the relation to the porn viewer and the starlet. We want to believe the fantasy but on some level we know the sad truth. Hymn To The Porn Star.
Little Democracies is a song that hashes out the difficulties of liberalism in government and relationships and endless variety. Bass and tinkling xylophone mixes with subtle keyboards as Hayman looks back on a woman he was with in 1997. The arrangement reminds me of Insides (4 AD) as echoy, dreamy guitar notes weave floating around the words. "We used to say that all that is wrong with the world is the U.S.A. But we know that's wrong". It is a matured-eyed peek back to being socialist in a capitalist world and what was really going on in those old, innocent democratic relationships. Whether they are with countries or individuals.
Last on the EP is the song, A Different Kind of Me. The underpinning of the arrangement is a slowed down drum heavy, reggae tinged Watching The Detectives. Again, Hayman flushes out the subtleties of why another of his relationships has failed. In order for the relationship to have succeeded Hayman would have to try harder and be a different kind of me. The addition of the banjo is a great way to pull the tune to its sudden ending.
The title, Cortinaland, defines a world where maturity breaks through the veiling membrane of the underdeveloped to a more mature state. Wrapped in the young artists vision, he is older and wiser and looking back with maturity. These tracks reaffirm Hayman's place as a chronicler of love, relations and endless regret. His touch for arranging has matured adding texture to his compositions. He seems more calm and melancholy than the aggressive life stage of Hefner.
Hayman yearns for something that may not exist. After sculpting a musical career from odes, hymns and harmonies of love and loss I wonder who, and what, can satisfy him? He seems to be forever relinquished to a purgatory of initial infatuation, disappointment and lamentation. It is difficult for Hayman to sound different from song to song. As a singer, he is hampered by limited vocal range, style and inflection. It becomes tedious. Individual pieces of the Hayman collection contain superlative works of pop comprised of wonderful lyrics and arrangements. In the end, Hayman can't seem to avoid the crushing weight of repetitive themes and his vocal style.