Darren Hayman And The Secondary Modern is the second full length solo album since Hayman called time on Hefner, whose latter-day recordings were released to good effect on the 2006 compilation, Catfight. Before I go any further though, I should perhaps explain to non-UK readers that a Secondary Modern is a type of high school in Great Britain, a more working class, less snobby grammar school, if you like.
The school theme continues on the opening track Art And Design which, after its Wreckless Eric-like strummed intro, is apparently about the declining standards of art education in high schools. Like a lot of the album, Art And Design is more memorable for its lyrics, such as…
Well you know your eyes
Are right in the middle of your head
That's what the art teacher said
I don't believe it myself
…than its music on initial listens, but these tunes grow to such a degree that you suddenly find yourself singing along unexpectedly. With violins and banjos galore, there are obvious folky and country influences, although at times it sounds like the missing link between Cockney Rebel and Too
Rye Aye-era Dexys. Or quite simply at times – particularly on the openings of Higgins Vs Reardon (a song about a 1982 Snooker final!) and She's Not For Me - they are reminiscent of McGuiness Flint and their early 70s UK smash, When I'm Dead And Gone. There's also something of a Ray Davies presence here, and not just the more celebrated 60'sixties vignettes. There are times when it brings to mind the later, less revered but still enjoyable- in-its-own-way Come Dancing.
Elsewhere, Rochelle has a T.Rex beat and a singalong chorus, whilst the budding karaoke singers amongst you might also enjoy crooning along with Lets Go Stealing and the aforementioned She's Not For Me, which is definitely one of the strongest tracks on the album. Other highlights include the acoustic stomp that is Straight Faced Tracy (surely the only time I've heard a pop singer boast "I've got sensible walking shoes"!) and the poignant The Pupil Most Likely, which finds Hayman telling us "There's no longer hope where hope should prevail" over horns and brushed percussion. And despite their tongue-in-cheek qualities, Elizabeth Duke and The Crocodile are pretty touching, too.
There are times, however, when you can't help thinking that Hayman was born in the wrong era, because there are a number of tracks here that would surely have troubled the charts in different times. This is never more apparent than on Wrong Thing. With a melody not a million miles away from Rhinestone Cowboy, this could have been huge in the 70s. I know this is seems like I'm tainting it with faint praise, but with the cooing female backing vocals repeating what Hayman says, The Wrong Things would have been the ideal follow-up for Tony Orlando and Dawn after Tie A Yellow Ribbon!!
This is followed by Apologise, which features more nice horn playing, a stylophone and an appearance by former Weather Prophet Pete Astor. Then the album ends with Nothing In The Letter, with its excellent scene-setting "watching Sopranos DVDs with a sleepy head resting on his knees" line, and another extremely catchy chorus.
Admittedly some of the mannered, almost Steve Harley-like vocals might not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you like good old fashioned radio friendly tunes alongside intelligent lyrics, then you could do a lot worse than to take a peek here.