The name evokes images of sleaze, decadence, revolving beds, and mirrored ceilings; of nights spent at the Playboy Mansion with James Caan. And, sure enough, Hefner frontman Darren Hayman’s penchant for writing jaded anthems to all the eye-hollowing, septum-slaying pleasures of the swinging world has brought comparisons to Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Britain’s premier chronicler of the sybarite’s morning after.
On Hefner’s first two full-length releases, 1998’s Breaking God’s Heart and 1999’s The Fidelity Wars, the band mixed folk, pop, and blue-eyed soul into hymns (literally! there’s “The Hymn for the Cigarettes,” “The Hymn for the Alcohol,” even—erk—”A Hymn for the Postal Service”) that, while often annoying at first, proved irresistible on repeated listens.
The band’s third full-length release, Boxing Hefner, is, according to the liner notes, a compilation of “rare” and unreleased songs recorded between 1996 and 2000. But it continues to explore the subject matter dearest to Hayman’s tortured heart: girls. Because unlike, say, Cocker, whose songs are less celebrations than cautionary tales from a world-weary soul who has seen, shagged, snorted, and swallowed it all, Hayman bears the hallmarks of a man still happily wallowing in the ways of the flesh. He hankers for “Christian Girls,” blind girls, drunk girls, librarian girls, girls who use the “F-word” in their letters (“but never, ever sp[eak] it”), kittenish girls, girls who smoke in bed, girls who’ll smack him in the mouth (hence the collection’s title)—and let’s not forget Lee Remick. Even “The Hymn for the Coffee,” one of two new contributions to the ever-growing Hefner Hymnal, turns out to be a declaration of lust for a girl with “big white thighs.”
The members of Hefner prefer to think of themselves as a folk band, like fellow Scots Belle and Sebastian, but, although their songs often begin folkily enough—with Hayman’s vocals backed by a strummed guitar—they generally build to a kind of soul-quickening majesty that brings to mind the glorious mini-anthems on Pulp’s This Is Hardcore. At first, highlighting Hayman’s vocals seems a dubious formula for success, because his voice can be off-putting—he’s the Geddy Lee of Scottish twee. But, like most things Scottish, it grows on you—like haggis, I’m told, or guys in plaid skirts.
Like any collection of tracks recorded at different times and places, Boxing Hefner lacks the musical cohesiveness that made Breaking God’s Heart and The Fidelity Wars such minor-key masterpieces of sustained dolor. What are “rare and unreleased” songs, after all, but songs that wouldn’t fit on earlier albums? The 12 tunes on Boxing Hefner make odd album mates, yet their varied pleasures offer a Whitman’s Sampler of tasty, bite-sized sounds.
The lads uncharacteristically crank up both volume and tempo on several tracks (the impossibly catchy “Christian Girls,” the propulsive “Pull Yourself Together,” the distorted vocal stomp of “Mary Lee”), toss in a couple of handclappers (“Hello Kitten,” “The Science Fiction,” the latter expiring in a squall of theremins), and even include both a Jonathan Richman cover (“To Hide a Little Thought”) and their longtime show closer, “Twisting Mary’s Arm.” The only pure dead clunker is “Destroyed Cowboy Falls,” whose four-plus minutes somehow go on at least eight minutes too long for a Stonehenge-like monolith of almost paralyzing lugubriousness.
The record’s other slow boats turn out, in fact, to be little wonders of seaworthiness. “Lee Remick” sets a story of family dissolution against a backdrop of prepubescent starlet worship; “The Hymn for the Things We Didn’t Do” (“We didn’t work enough/Avoided all the tricky stuff”) and “We Don’t Care What They Say” pretty much explain themselves. And on the dry, hilarious, but moving “Blind Girl With Halo,” Hayman is crushed to learn that his visually impaired girlfriend is betrothed to “a Catholic guy with stronger faith than I”—via a rejection note written in Braille.
Boxing Hefner’s cover features a cartoon sex bomb in boxing gloves. But this image doesn’t simply represent just another love-is-a-fight cliche. As Hayman makes clear when he begs his girl to “slap me around and make my lips a bit swollen,” he views boxing less as a metaphor for the rocky nature of sexual relationships than as literal foreplay. Indeed, he goes 12 rounds and remains standing. CP