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For the second installment in his planned Essex trilogy, Darren Hayman shifts his focus from the suburban, middle-class "new town" Harlow — the subject and setting of 2009's Pram Town — to a broader view of the East Anglian county's rural, working-class communities. Like its predecessor, Essex Arms is full of highly specific geographic and cultural references that effectively function as a backdrop to Hayman's usual assortment of love songs, character sketches, and wistful ruminations. This time there's no attempt to cement the album's concept through a grand connecting narrative (or even a modest one), but the songs still hang together nicely to evoke a clear sense of place, with linchpins including "Dagenham Ford" — a touchingly bittersweet eulogy to a shuttered auto plant (and perennial football underdogs West Ham United) — and the languorous "Two Tree Island" (an ode to a former sewage works and landfill, now partially a nature reserve), with its vision of the countryside commingled with litter and waste. Sweetness and decadence run hand and hand throughout these songs, with references to semi-public sex and reckless (and sometimes fatal) joyriding intermingling with heartfelt declarations of love (none more pure and guileless than "Super Kings"' earnest refrain). Perhaps the most winning moment (which is reprised en passant throughout the album, for good measure) comes with "Winter Makes You Want Me More," whose central sentiment is as poetic as it is self-evident; a cold-weather love song that's as universal as paw prints in the snow, shivering smokers, and candy-striped flannelette sheets. Throughout, Hayman and a particularly strong incarnation of the Secondary Modern (including contributions from Fanfarlo and the Wave Pictures, and — on the scene-setting "Calling Out Your Name Again" — a duet with Emmy the Great) infuse the proceedings with a loose but decidedly folksy, countrified air, flush with pedal steel, harmonica, fiddle, mandolin, and more. That musical modus may or may not be strictly relevant to the countryside in question, but it works marvelously well with Hayman's increasingly soulful songwriting, both on the hushed, melancholic tunes that make up the majority of this collection (starting right off the bat with the sad-sack "Be Lonely") and the handful of upbeat offerings, including the atypically rocky scrabble-playing closer "Nothing You Can Do About It." While it's not quite the uniquely charming statement Pram Town was, Essex Arms is yet another excellent addition to Hayman's ever-expanding discography. ~ K. Ross Hoffman, Rovi

Essex Arms, Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern
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