Illustration from The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones, 1856
I first heard about the London band Hefner around the time of the release of their final album Dead Media. Guys I knew that were Hefner fans were so disappointed by the direction the new direction of the band thought I should check out the earlier stuff to see what the ruckus was all about. It turned out that Hefner was right up my alley - nerdy indie pop with a singular songwriting style and interesting voice, courtesy of frontman Darren Hayman. Since Hefner split up, Hayman has jumped between different projects. The one that has sounded most interesting to me is the Great British Holiday EPs project - it turned out that it wasn't available except as an import, but I splurged and bought it anyway, ostensibly as a gift for my special lady friend.
Between 2005 and 2007, Hayman and his wife went on a series of vacations to different UK holiday destinations. On each trip, he wrote an EP of songs intended to invoke the feel of the place. As a settling-down songwriter no longer as obsessed with the subjects of his earlier career (mostly booze, sex, and politics), Hayman used these holidays to ruminate on his current concerns and thoughts. The EPs make a nice collection addressing adult worries like disappointment, regret, and aging. Unfortunately, the EPs are presented chronologically, and the first EP, Caravan Songs, is easily the weakest of the four. I'm not sure whether Hayman actually had any fun in his wife's uncle's caravan in the northeast of England, but the songs themselves are not much fun. All the EPs were recorded with drum machine, ukulele, and keyboards, but this first set of songs is particularly stripped down, with some pretty bitter lyrics and a pointless instrumental track. The Great British Holiday EPs collection features some bonus tracks not on the original EPs, and the ones from Caravan Songs are superior, particularly Hayman's cover of "Holiday Road", the Lindsey Buckingham song from the soundtrack of National Lampoon's Vacation. It's a good choice of a song to cover - the collection's bonus tracks feature two other great covers, Connie Francis' "Vacation" and "Margate", a song from early '80s novelty act Chas & Dave (the song was best known as a jingle for Courage Beer).
The remaining three EPs on the collection are pretty excellent. Hayman's second holiday to the North Devon Coast is covered by Ukulele Songs from the North Devon Coast, and it might be the strongest EP in the collection. The songs are pretty personal, focusing on his thoughts on being married ("Rain All Summertime" and "The Only Kind of Light I Know") and getting older ("Hardcore No More" and "8 Bit World"). The arrangements are more sprightly and dynamic, and it has an optimism that was missing from Caravan Songs. In 2006, Hayman spent a couple days at the Seabeach House Hotel in Eastbourne making the EP Eastbourne Lights. I'm guessing that Eastbourne is a holiday destination for older folks, because this EP's songs have lyrics about old age and death. Highlights include include "No Military Man", which captures the suspicious tendencies of senior citizens really well, and "The Musgrave Collection", a song about living in a little room surrounded by memories. The series wrapped up with Hayman's trip to Butlins Holiday Camp in Minehead in 2006. These songs are typical wry ruminations on life in the Hayman style, but they have nice hooks and end the set on a high note.
The Great British Holiday EPs collection is worth tracking down if you like ukulele-based, literate pop music. Based on the songs presented, I'd be most likely to go to North Devon on holiday - Hayman really seemed happy there, even though the weather was apparently not great. You can hear about it in "Rain All Summertime", a song about how the right companionship can make any holiday a good one. Considering the stripped down arrangement Hayman used on this record, he got a good variety of sounds and dynamics out of the setup, and you can really hear it in the hooks on this song.
"Rain All Summertime" by Darren Hayman