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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Darren Hanlon: Hello Stranger

Darren Hanlon
Hello Stranger

When one thinks Australian balladeer, one first thinks of Paul Kelly. But there’s a new star on that continent’s horizon — one Darren Hanlon who comes from Gympie, Queensland, with music that is fresh and disarming. His first full-length CD Hello Stranger is ten tracks of great storytelling, simply arranged to best serve the wit and naivety that resides within.

Hanlon’s unaffected sounds remind one of Billy Bragg, only with a very different focus. (Strangely enough, Hanlon opened for Bragg on a recent tour). While Bragg often takes on the whole world and its politics, Hanlon merely hones in on the politics of love and relationships, smaller personal issues and objects of less consequence. Hanlon is able to invest such things with a surprising magic; his is that rare ability to present the commonplace as special. This is observation with wonder, a wistful world seen anew with innocent eyes.

Yet Hanlon is a reluctant solo artist. While studying music at The University of Southern Cross in Lismore, he joined up with the folk-inspired indie group The Simpletons as guitarist and stayed on for five years (1993-1998). He later played a bit with Mick Thomas (of Wedding Parties Anything) and The Lucksmiths (extra guitar and keyboards). He had written a few songs over the years, mostly as gifts for people, and would play them at friends’ birthday parties, but never really considered a solo career until Candle Records’ owner Chris Crouch suggested it.

Crouch pushed Hanlon out into the spotlight, and soon he was playing shows around Sydney and recording an EP. When Australian Triple J Radio started playing one of his songs in heavy rotation (“Falling Aeroplanes”), the unplanned career was well underway. Now he has his first full-length CD — a minimalist gem of ten special tracks that still seem like personal gifts – only they’re available the world over.

The past few years Hanlon has toured extensively, opening for Bragg and Magnetic Fields and Augie March. His comic tendency to talk abundantly has won over many a live crowd. In fact, his current tour is taking him from Sweden to the UK to the US (you can find exact venues and dates on Candle Records’ website). The troubadour is quirky (he seems proud of an obsession with the film actor Eli Wallach), but his music is endearing.

Opening track “Hiccups” is an upbeat anthem that proffers some advice on finding a cure, but it’s really about a woman obsessed with games and mismatched moods. It contains astoundingly clever wordplay, with lyrics like this: “A thousand ideas I try to tell crossword girl / How do I get one across when you’re always too down” and “Some day without trying you’ll find something that’s rare / Like an eight-letter word with a triple-word square”.

“The Kickstand Song” is a narrative from the guy whose ingenious invention changed the cycling world forever, as he ponders that his real reward will be the smiling facers of bike owners everywhere: “What joy it’ll bring / piece of metal and a spring / Bolted down by the back wheel / activated by the heel”.

“That’s How I Know” is a wistful reminisce of a relationship now gone, familiar territory made palatable by some witty phrasings from this guy who now is up by the crack of noon (“They say that waking up is hard to do”). “Security Leak” is a pressured plea for information from a man who knows all about Chinese torture, and features some wonderfully weepy pedal steel from guest Nick Summers.

The title of the CD comes from “He Misses You Too, You Know”, a sincere recounting of a phone conversation re-assuring a friend whose love is away that the traveling party must be thinking of her. The honesty is what makes this ballad so special, it’s simple and yet real and ultimately wonderful. Once again, lyrical attention to detail gives the whole thing added credence, it’s obvious that this is a close friend: “I know it’s hard to become whole when you’re usually referred to as his better half / but you’re still the girl who chops onions wearing swimming goggles”.

Perhaps my favorite track here is “Operator . . . Get Me Sweden”, an unabashed tribute to those who work the switchboards connecting peoples’ voices, or as Hanlon sees them – this earths’ long distance love ambassadors: “To speak to her tonight I’ll take anything / By means of fiber optics or two tin cans on a string / I really must apologize for my compulsive behavior / One left his heart in San Francisco, mine’s in Scandinavia”.

“Cast of Thousands” features vocals by Frida Eklund (from the Swedish band Alma), and again this is an unusual twist on the familiar love long gone. This woman’s ex of a year ago has now broken his leg, which triggers a hospital visit: “You had a cast of thousands of signatures and charts filled with your fluctuating temperatures / You handed me a pen and pointed just below the knee / I’m glad there’s still a part of you reserved for me”. This is not your average reminisce, it’s a whirl of mixed messages as she thinks: “Shame they can’t cover us in plaster and in six months all is mended”.

The current radio favorite from down under is “Punk’s Not Dead”, an infectious upbeat ode to a roommate hell-bent on playing her punk music at any given hour, and the temporary peace that comes when she goes to bed. “Cheat The Future” is a Bragg-like recounting of love’s victory over astrology and fortune telling prophecy.

My other favorite track is the beautiful closer – the plaintive piano ballad “The Last Night of Not Knowing You”. This song relates every detail of that remarkable night before his life changed and the singer marvels at the intricacies of such fates, as if “some divine puppeteer had the whole meeting planned”. This is Hanlon at his lyrical best, poetic and honest and charming, telling about playing a gig far from home where it happened: “An arrangement of strangers, tables and chairs / Tobacco and wine left me fuzzy upstairs / But what weak minds prevent well hard proof may allow / Did my eyes have a spark that they seem to have now / A blurred photo taken that even holds not a clue / on the last night of not knowing you”.

The tracks are all simply arranged, the music never getting in the way of the storytelling. Chris Townend of Sun produced it in his studio (he is producing the new Portishead) and managed to make these ten diverse songs into a very coherent collection. This is mostly acoustic folk-rock, and while there are pianos and bass and drums and even some pedal steel and strings, the mainstay is Hanlon’s voice and guitar.

These songs are long on clever yet maintain a simple charm by being infused with a winning naiveté. The overall effect is refreshing — stimulating for the mind and easy on the ears. Hanlon focuses on details with admirable honesty — this is music about things that are real, heartfelt without being sentimental, poignant and playful where others might get syrupy sweet. Treat yourself to the charms of Hello Stranger. Like much of what he writes about, Darren Hanlon’s music is a simple pleasure.