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Darren Hayman and the Secondary Modern - Pram Town

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 10 / 2 / 2009

Darren Hayman and the Secondary Modern - Pram Town
Label: Track And Field
Format: CD


Fantastic tenth album of weary suburban dissatisfaction from former Hefner frontman Darren Hayman, which, a concept record about the new town of Harlow in Essex, proves to be possibly the best album of his career

Darren Hayman’s tenth album begins (give or take an instrumental intro) by asking the listener, "How could you live anywhere else?" He is referring to Harlow Newtown, a post world war two development in Essex, which was given the affectionate nickname ‘Pram Town’ by 'The Daily Mirror' during the 1950s. Like the nickname, the concept of new towns seems slightly ridiculous these days. Intended to be a cultured alternative to city life for young families, they have come to represent a particularly British kind of ambitionless suburbia. But the failure of the new town is really the failed culture of the British middle-class. Post 1945- Britain was desperate for new housing which allowed working families to escape the cramped inner-city terraces they had lived in before the Blitz. Compared to a 1930s slum, Harlow still looks an attractive option. Although Darren’s lead character ends this fourteen track concept album pining for the city, his songs lean towards that affectionate view of Harlow. Indeed, the striking sleeve art demonstrates just how impressed he was by the innovative designs that underpinned the new town projects. ‘Pram Town’ is roughly split between songs that are directly about the town (titles such as ‘Civic Pride’, ‘Our Favourite Motorway’ and ‘High Rise Towers in Medium Size Towns’ give that away) and songs that tell the story of a doomed romance between a man from Harlow and his North-London girlfriend. They meet on the train, he sends her a compilation tape and they date, but eventually his mildly paranoid sense of inferiority leads him to feel ashamed of his dull life and his tired hometown. You may have noticed that up to this point, I haven’t mentioned Darren’s old band. (Hefner, if you were wondering. Google them, because if you’re the sort of person who reads this website, you’d be the sort of person who likes Hefner). That is mostly because his music as a solo artist no longer sounds anything like his old band. While his last album, ‘Darren Hayman and the Secondary Modern’, included Hefner’s distinctively rickety skiffle-punk guitar sound on a third of the tracks, this album is entirely composed of what I can only call urban-folk. The Secondary Modern is now a thirteen strong folk band, and have come up with a playing style that doesn’t actually sound like anyone else in particular. The violins, banjos and ukuleles give these songs a neat flourish, and entirely distracted me from the fact (until it was pointed out to me) that there were no electric guitars on the album at all. Other reviewers have suggested that this is the first time Darren Hayman as a solo artist has captured the qualities he showed in Hefner. I have to disagree. Firstly, this sounds nothing like Hefner. Secondly, this album seems to me to be a continuation of a strong run of songwriting in recent years (I would genuinely take ‘Elizabeth Duke’, from the last album and ‘Out of Season’, from the 'Minehead EP' over any of his Hefner songs). But, still, it probably is the best album he has made. The Harlow concept has made his lyrics especially sharp, while his collaborators turn in some inspired performances. On ‘Losing My Glue’, co-written with Dave Tattersall of the Wave Pictures, these come together for a jaunty and delightful pop song, while on ‘Big Fish’ they make for a song that is straightforwardly touching and effortlessly catchy. As much as I loved Hefner for the willingness of the lyrics to own up to things other songwriters stubbornly refused to, I never felt that I related to them personally. Had I ever asked out a blind girl, attempted to corrupt a Christian or lusted after someone who smoked in my bed ? No. But, here, Darren - though he is inventing characters and speaking entirely with someone else’s voice, has written about a kind of weary suburban dissatisfaction that I can instantly identify with. Often funny, often sad, sometimes both, these songs simply don’t sound like anything other bands would even consider writing. We don’t go in for star ratings at Pennyblackmusic, a policy I wholeheartedly endorse. But let's pretend for a second that I write for another publication, less confident of its reader’s intelligence, because ‘Pram Town’ absolutely deserves that magic five star rating. I simply love it.

Track Listing:-
1 Civic Pride
2 Pram Town
3 Compilation Cassette
4 Losing My Glue
5 No Middle Name
6 Room to Grow
7 Our Favourite Motorway
8 Out Of My League
9 Amy and Rachel
10 Fire Stairs
11 Leaves on the Line
12 High Rise Towers in Medium Size Towns
13 Never Want To Be That Way Again
14 Big Fish

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