Though Hefner survive in the collective consciousness as the exemplar of an indie guitar outfit, the band deployed vintage synths and drum machines on later recordings. Which means that this, The French’s ‘Local Information’, isn’t quite the without-precedent one-off it might first appear.
A short-lived studio band comprising of Hefner’s Darren Hayman and bassist John Morrison, The French recorded their lone album by layering simple electronic lines onto a bed of pattering drum machines. It was, Hayman said later, “liberating to pack the guitars away.”
Despite some nice reviews when it appeared in 2003, including five stars in The Guardian, ‘Local Information’ was missed by many. Me included. I found it a year later when a mutual friend, the musician/Eno biographer David Sheppard introduced me to Hayman at a launch of a compilation album by Pete Astor’s Weather Prophets.
I discovered Hayman nurtured an enthusiasm for forgotten budget electronic keyboards, and was the proprietor of an expanding home-made modular synth. At the time I was researching a book ‘Strange Sounds’, which profiles weird instruments in the history of pop so we had some common ground. A subsequent exchange of creative wares found me with ‘Local Information’, which I loved on first listen.
The album’s 10 tracks catch a gifted writer growing into maturity. Lyrically, eight are small-town vignettes, Hayman skewering crushed suburban dreams with pinpoint accuracy. Familiar territory, as anyone conversant with his preceding or subsequent work will know. The exceptions are ‘The Pines’, which appears to portray redneck survivalists, and the hilarious ‘Gabriel In the Airport’ (Gabriel as in “that plasticine video guy”, as Hayman puts it).
Musically, it’s melodic electropop willfully reluctant to be tied to any reference points. Maybe Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Ballad Of Lucy Jordan’, for its quietly bubbling synths and domestic angst? Or a more humane Momus? ‘When She Leaves Me’ could be an inversion of Blancmange’s rendition of ABBA’s ‘The Day Before You Came’ relocated to a bedsit somewhere in Essex.
My introduction to ‘Local Information’ came pleasingly full circle in 2006 when Hayman invited Sheppard, Astor and me to a day’s recording for his Darren Hayman & the Secondary Modern album. My job was to add electronic gadgetry. A photo on the CD booklet shows me hunched over an omnichord and a stylophone. I also played my test oscillator, and although I brought my theremin along we didn’t use it.
All Darren Hayman’s albums are good, but in my view, there’s none better than ‘Local Information’.