Review: Darren Hayman, January Songs

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So here I am, nearly at the end of my post-a-day effort. Some of you may think that I had a grand scheme to do this months ago and that I was waiting for New Year's Day to come so I could get on with it. In truth, although I had a plan to re-publish some old fanzine stuff, I only realised that a daily post might be possible whilst sitting in the upstairs bar of the Lexington on the afternoon of January 1st.
I was watching Darren Hayman play a short free set as part of the Hangover Lounge, and I bought a copy of his new double album January Songs. For those of you who don't know, in January 2011 Darren undertook what he now calls a 'stupid' task. He decided that during the 31 days of the bleakest month of the year he would write and record a song per day, and upload it to the internet with some visuals to accompany it. Amazingly he achieved this, and I bet his January went very fast. All of the January Songs and their accompanying videos can be found at and just to make himself busy this January, Darren has thrown himself into the release and promotion of the CD by playing a couple of shows and drawing each CD sleeve by hand. You can watch him doing this in the video below!

Film about January Songs Cover Art from Darren Hayman on Vimeo.

One of the best things about the whole project is how Darren was able to work with different musicians every day. There's around 100 minutes of music over the two CDs, and during that time it manages to sound like the most varied band in the world. Darren even allows others to sing his songs, which just adds to the variety.
Given the fact that a lot of the songs were recorded impulsively, straight after they were written, the quality is remarkably strong. It's the true that some songs would never have seen the light of day if there had been a diligent editing process, but there are quite a few that rank amongst his very best.
The real diamond is 'I Know I Fucked Up', a beautiful song with vocals by Elizabeth Morris from Allo Darlin, although the likes of 'Shhh' (with Litoral) and 'Ventriloquism' (with Ghostwriter) are superb too. It's good to hear Darren with a band again, and even though it's a different band every track, the voice and the writing style do remind me of Hefner. This is most evident on the catchy sing-along tracks like 'Who Hung the Monkey' and 'I Can't Control Myself' although 'It Was Over' explores their familiar themes of love and regret and 'Bad Technology' recalls the Dead Media-era Hefner with it's analog synth textures.
It's not all familiar ground though; 'I Can Keep a Secret' (with Harvey Williams) is built entirely around vocal tracks whilst 'the Return' is a short spoken word tale with a jazzy backing track.

Finally, on a serious note, Darren's sleeve notes say "what I've discovered as I get older is that hard work stops me feeling nervous and that feeling exhausted is better than being frightened." I took this as a reference to what happened in November 2009 when Darren was badly beaten up in Nottingham in the middle of a UK tour. The attack left him hospitalised for three days with a linear fracture of the skull and a condition known as Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo which meant that small crystals were dislodged in his inner ear, causing him to feel dizzy. He also lost some of the top range of his hearing in his left ear and was advised to rest and do as little as possible in order to recuperate. Being a very prolific musician, it was hard to do nothing and Darren found that he had to continue to write songs, although he experienced discomfort when faced with loud music. His first solution was to purchase a ship's piano for around £70 on ebay and begin to write songs on that. The resulting efforts were released a few months ago as The Ship's Piano, which I reviewed on the 405.. I think it's fair to say that he intended it to be a 'proper' album, whilst these 31 January songs were more of an internet experiment.
The other aftermath of being beaten up is of course psychological and Darren was worried that he would have difficulty leaving the house, never mind perform in public again. I've been fortunate to see him three times in the last few months and he has seemed like his old self. Amiable and amusing in between songs, and not afraid to trot out back catalogue rarities as well as showcase his new material. There still aren't any loud noises but he did play through a small amp at the Lexington, and the January Songs showcase in the Hideaway in Archway did feature a small drum kit as well.

It's tempting to see January Songs as an exercise in self-discipline; a way of turning your songwriting craft into a day job, like those of the writers who worked at the likes of the Brill Building in the 1960s. Whereas The Ship's Piano was a fine collection of songs with a uniform sound, January Songs is uneven but fascinating. Anyone who enjoys the work of Hefner or the solo Hayman should investigate both.

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