The Best of Hefner 1996-2002
nd so it was tired, ill, slightly depressed, and hung over that I finally listened to the best of Hefner, which is the sort of condition some would tell you is ideal. But, as the perceptive and enlightening essay from Jack Hayter of the band included here would gently correct you, to focus on the heartbreak recounted and enacted in (some of) these songs would be to miss the point—whatever Darren Hayman's personal life has been like, he's always been a writer of rare insight and humour (and empathy), and being in a band is, more than anything else “fun—why else would you do it?” (there's Jack again).
The liner notes to the first potted history of Britain's Largest Small Band (a title dubbed and worn with humility and self-awareness as well as sardonicism and pride) provide the valuable kind of picture of a band you only get from the guy who doesn't join until after their second album, who throws in with an indie band despite being “forty years old with two kids and a mortgage.” But that's not the best part of the package—that wouldn't even be the hard to obtain “original version”’s of the band's debut single (“A Better Friend” and “Christian Girls,” still as heartily sweet after a decade) or the “didgeridoo version” of the immortal “Pull Yourself Together.” Instead what really satisfies for fans is the chance to confirm once and for all that although Hefner's sound grew richer and deeper as they grew more experienced in and out of the studio, the writing never declined in quality and never lost its sense of identity.
What those early single tracks do accomplish is to put paid to the notion (popping up in reviews of their first couple of records) that Hefner were ever very “folk” or “country” after the name stopped referring to just Hayman and his guitar. They were very definitely a rock band, but one with “space in the sound, none of that indie mush.” Hayman and later Hayter play without distortion for the kind of guitar sound favoured by early Talking Heads—just as muscular as fuller, rougher styles, but tensile instead of brawny. John Morrison is one of those bassists you really don't notice until you finally try to figure out what it is that is carrying the melody of a song like “The Sad Witch” or “I Took Her Love For Granted,” and the galloping second half of “The Sweetness Lies Within” should be all the argument needed on behalf of Antony Harding's prowess behind the kit. The band's sound was not a very flashy or unique one, but rather the kind of solidly dependable backing you sometimes wish someone like John Darnielle would luck into.
Not that Hayman is as phantasmagorical as Darnielle, or as historical or discursive, or any of a hundred other qualities; but although Hefner never gets the wild acclaim the Mountain Goats (deservedly do) Darnielle has never been as aphoristic or observational or as anthemic as Hayman was on a regular basis on these songs. Both writers possess voices “on the plaintive side of the whingeing scale,” but Hayman is clearly more comfortable fiddling with structure and instrumentation, the actual music, whereas part of Darnielle's magic is that he often doesn't seem to be a songwriter at all, in the conventional sense. Hayman could instead pass at times for the bastard son of Elvis Costello, repeatedly working the fertile/furtive soil of infidelity and decaying relationships, albeit with a lot more sympathy than Costello in his fertile period.
The comparison to Darnielle deserves to be made, however, just as the Talking Heads and Costello ones do, because although Hefner have always been on the verge of being consigned to the dustbin as “just another” small indie outfit from England singing about girls, they deserve so much more. They weren't just Britain's Largest Small Band, during these years they were one of its Best. Breaking God's Heart is still as devastating a portrait of callow youth as anything you'd care to pit it against (and is in fact slightly under-represented here); The Fidelity Wars, their only album that you could fairly call “transitional”, deepens the depictions of being smart but not good, of hurting and being hurt and still boasts one perfect song in “The Hymn For The Cigarettes” (and another near-perfect one in the Gina Birch-assisted “Don't Flake Out On Me”); We Love The City, arguably and popularly their peak, embraces happiness (and a horn section) in startlingly compelling fashion and boasts a surprisingly deep selection of love songs from a band who once seemed to write exclusively about breakups; and even the unfairly maligned “curate's egg” Dead Media assimilates Hayman and Hayter's longtime love of vintage synthesizer sounds easily thanks to another leap in songwriting, with only obvious crossover attempt “Trouble Kid” (not included here) sticking out like a sore thumb.
The selections The Best Of Hefner 1996-2002 makes from these albums (as well as a few from the host of odds and ends collected on the fine Boxing Hefner compilation) are hard to argue with; even the couple of fairly left-field choices are likely to be met with warmth from fans, like The Fidelity Wars' closer “I Love Only You” with its oddly fitting scratching or We Love The City's triumphant “Painting And Kissing,” five minutes without a chorus and never needing one. Or especially “Home,” a garrulously ramshackle road/label complaint that ended Hefner's last record. Because, as the invaluable Jack puts it, “Once a band starts recording songs about touring and record company staff, it's time for a rest.” But here as on Dead Media, “Home” works as a final throwing in of the towel, the natural companion to Six By Seven's cry at the beginning of their debut album that “all I want is a quiet life with my wife.” There are a few songs each fan will probably wish were here (for my part, I can't believe “Destroyed Cowboy Falls” and “China Crisis” didn't make it), but no omissions or additions so glaring as to void the satisfaction of having most of the band's best material in one place, from “Hello Kitten” to “Alan Bean,” from early fumblings of (self)love through to the ascent into space.
And for non-fans, it's hard to imagine there ever being a better mass-produced introduction to the band than this one (we can debate the merits of personally crafted mixes another time). Ranging wide without being schizophrenic, hitting the highlights without ignoring the interesting bits in the back of the catalog, digging deep without getting tiresome, this is the kind of collection that will make you ultimately go out and get all the albums, where as soon as first listen you could be falling in love to (or with) “The Greater London Radio” or “Lee Remick.” Hefner are no more for everyone than any other band, but they are for more than have actually heard them (except in Spain, but that's another story). Hopefully this compilation is the beginning of correcting that.