From the tired jokes about 'Essex Girls', to the recent reality show 'The Only Way is Essex', the county that fascinates Darren Hayman has taken an unfair battering. 'Essex Arms', the second part of Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern's proposed "Essex Trilogy" attempts to redress that balance, amidst an array of largely excellent, melodic and surprisingly varied songs. But whilst the previous 'Pram Town' had dealt with urban Essex, most notably Hayman's own experience of Harlow; 'Essex Arms' takes us into the county's more rural landscape. It is a region superbly evoked over most of the 12 tracks on offer. Lyrically the album is a bit hit and miss, but when it's good, it is absolutely superb. The heartbreakingly romantic closer, the ostensibly jaunty, but troubled 'Nothing You Can Do About It' is definitely the album's masterpiece, but on tracks like 'I'll Be Your Alibi' and 'Two Tree Island', Hayman & TSM draw out sensuous portraits of romance, friendship and the enigmatic landscape the album focuses on. Musically, TSM are a superb foil for Hayman's aching, heartfelt vocals, with a combination of catchy percussion, jangling guitars, and lamenting pianos.
Whilst Darren Hayman's albums, like those of Hefner, have produced some wonderful tracks; they've tended to possess a little inconsistency as well. As fantastic as stretches of 'Essex Arms' are, it's a criticism I would also label at this album. The opener 'Be Lonely' is a bit of a whiney dirge, whilst 'Winter Makes You Want Me More' is an interesting idea for a song, but the track itself is rather self-indulgent and repetitive. Equally, whilst some of the album's lyrics are truly memorable and powerful; there are a handful of pretty naff lines and rhymes which spoil one or two songs a touch. Still, these criticisms don't impede too much on the quality of what is an original, likeable, and often moving record. For fans of Hefner and of Hayman's earlier albums, I'd definitely recommend 'Essex Arms', as I would to anyone looking for an eclectic pop/rock/indie album with genuine heart and a host of tracks you'll want to return to.