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Darren Hanlon - Hello Stranger

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Artist: Darren Hanlon

Album: Hello Stranger

Label: Drive-In

Review date: Sep. 30, 2002

Words and Guitar? Yes, Please.

Sometimes it's easy to forget about how important words are. Some bands can make compelling music with pure sound, be it lush instrumentals or harsh, pummeling noise. Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, rightly hailed as a work of brilliant production, is ultimately a great album because at the core of all its wonderful sounds lie simple, sturdy songs with strong melodies and wonderful lyrics. Sound is a transporting thing, and sometimes sound is all you need. But words communicate in their own particular, bizarre way, and when paired with the right sounds, they can be a truly powerful thing. Witness Bob Dylan and Pavement, just to name two, whose music wouldn't have resonated half as deeply were it not for its unique lyrical visions.

For one reason or another, Australia and New Zealand have produced quite a few groups in the last couple of decades who value words highly, and I'm not talking about Midnight Oil. The Go-Betweens, the Bats, Tall Dwarves, and the Lucksmiths all make music using a basic guitar-pop template; what distinguishes them is their particular use of language. Storytelling, an eye for the absurd, and a keen sense of observation are what make their songs great. Within this particular genre, these bands have created quite a high bar for other songwriters, regardless of which hemisphere they live in. Melbourne-based singer/songwriter Darren Hanlon has these standards to live up to, and on his debut album Hello Stranger, he does them one better and makes one of the more satisfying pop albums in recent memory.

Hello Stranger kicks off with "Hiccups", which boasts lush, jangly guitar and a melancholy lyric about emotional imbalances in relationships. The song also features a spoken-word bridge about hiccup cures and a beautiful, soaring chorus. The next song, "Kickstand", is about, well, a kickstand, although the lyrics function as a grander metaphor, and it's enormously affecting. Hanlon is confident enough in his material and his warm, lovely voice to leave the songs alone, allowing the simple arrangements to get the job done. Probably the most touching track on the album is "He Misses You Too, You Know", a long-distance relationship lament that uses nothing more than Hanlon's voice and an acoustic guitar to detail a couple of lonely people on opposite ends of a phone line. Hanlon's songs are funny, romantic, catchy, often quite beautiful, and there's not a dud among them. There's no new ground broken here whatsoever, but that's not the point. The reason that music like this never exhausts itself is that the things around us keep changing, life moves on and perspectives are altered. There are always new situations and new ideas to respond to, and thus new things to sing about.

Other highlights include "Punk's Not Dead", a gently rocking ode to a past roommate who blasted the Ramones at all hours and the excellent break-up song, "Cast of Thousands", on which Hanlon passes the mic to Frida Eklund with sniffle-inducing results. Hanlon isn't as sonically innovative as the Dwarves or as eclectic as the Bats, but he makes up for his relative conservatism through his perfect balance of pathos and wit. He's also assisted by producer Chris Townend (Portishead) who gives the record a warm, spontaneous feel and inserts little touches of violin or vibraphone at just the right moments. And if you're still feeling skeptical, I challenge you not to swoon at hearing the album's closer, "The Last Night of Not Knowing You", a great little ballad about falling in love at a show.

This won't sound entirely new if you've heard the aforementioned Australian bands before, especially the Lucksmiths, with whom Hanlon shares a penchant for strummy acoustic guitars and a love of everyday details in his lyrics. However, comparisons aside, Hanlon has made a gem of a pop record that transcends whatever similarities exist with other bands through its sheer consistency and quality. And while we can certainly ask for more from musicians, it also seems that we should be pleased when something this good offers itself up.

By Jason Dungan

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