Hayden: So much for miserable
In the summer, a friend introduced me to Hayden’s LP “Skyscraper National Park”. I’d never heard of Hayden or the record, but it’s a good record. Hayden Desser is a Canadian singer-songwriter in the lo-fi alt-folk melancholy/miserable tradition. On the odd occasion a song might remind you of Harvest-era Neil Young, but I suspect the reason Desser is sometimes compared to Young is the Canada thing rather than anything else. Mind you, having said that, a couple of tracks have the drum and guitar sound and harmonica that reminds you of nothing if not “Out On the Weekend”. Anyway, “Skyscraper National Park” is the kind of record I play when I want to hear The Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon but just listened to them half an hour ago so need a change. Similarly, The Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon are who I play when I need a change from Hayden. (If I want really really miserable I go for Drunk, who have taken pissed-offedness to great new holes dug at the bottom of the deepest pit. Then they go down another layer.)
Anyway, Hayden bought out a new record a few months back: “Elk-Lake Serenade”. It got good reviews, and I had half a mind to buy it when it came out but somehow it slipped through the net. Sometimes I have to avoid record shops and buy food. But I was walking home a couple of weeks back and stopped off at the door to The Maze to check the listings, and Hayden was on the list of things coming up. So, I bought a ticket, and next day I bought the LP. I’m nothing if not thorough.
I asked Mr. Belbin if he wanted to go to the gig, but he checked the music out and declared it too miserable for him. I knew it would be; he doesn’t like Bright Eyes, either. But the other Dave, at work, is a big Red House Painters fan, and we agree that miserable music is tremendously uplifting even though we don’t want it all the time, and without even bothering to listen to the records he told me to get him a ticket. He has so much faith; when we talk about this musical melancholia we are always grinning like fools.
Hayden has one of those voices that is kind of low and occasionally cracked but still seems to have a pretty good reach. At times he goes for clarity, then he mumbles as if it’s all become too much. Sometimes he sounds like he’s had a few drinks, or just woken up. He sings about the usual things: lost love, car crashes, ghosts, and an ex-girlfriend being killed by a grizzly bear. The new record has some basic arrangements using only voice and acoustic guitar, but elsewhere it brings in (not all at the same time: he isn’t Mercury Rev) steel guitar, a string section, brass, a piano and, on the one track I’m really not sure about at all, what could even be a synthesizer. Guesting on the LP are Howie Beck, who I’ve heard of but never heard, and Julie Doiron on vocals, who I’ve not only heard of but actually have some tracks downloaded from somewhere, and she’s good. Mind you, her songs are not the cheeriest, either. (Aside: I think I may have to slam Kylie on in a minute, if only to stir the air a little.) Generally, Hayden records are pretty tuneful but low-key and, yes, melancholy. First Class Melancholy. I can understand why someone might not like it. But as I said, for me, miserable lifts up the heart, sort of.
Of course, it turns out that Hayden is not a miserabilist at all. Yes, the songs are not jolly anthems. But Hayden was funny, entertaining, a pleasure to be around, and it was a great show. It is, as I’m sure you know, easy to be funny if you’re introducing a song about intruders breaking into your house while you’re upstairs working on your music and you have the headphones on, and they end up murdering you. It is also funny to know that one of your songs, which is about your pet cat wandering off each Spring to have sex, has been played in branches of Starbucks, and someone has written in to Starbucks Head Office to complain because the song, to their ears, is obviously about the artist and his friends sitting in the back yard masturbating and you don’t need that kind of thing played while you’re having your coffee.
Hayden played solo, no band: guitar and harmonica, sometimes putting the guitar to one side and playing keyboard. On one song he replaced the trumpet on the record with “mouth trumpet”, because he said he couldn’t afford to bring a trumpeter over from Canada for just one song. He’s a class act, and reminded you how good one bloke and an acoustic guitar and quality songs can be. He encored with a couple of his own songs, then ended by offering the audience a choice of covers: an Otis Redding song with guitar, or a Leonard Cohen song at the piano. We had to decide by the old-fashioned method of clapping and cheering for the one we wanted, and made so much noise he told us it was obvious we liked other people’s songs better than his. Of course, he played both anyway: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” and “Famous Blue Raincoat”. The first made it clear, if it wasn’t clear already to those listening, he has a really soulful, feeling voice. Did I already say this was a great show? The music was brilliant, Hayden was a really nice bloke, and everybody smiled and laughed a lot. So much for miserable.
Note: read the Guardian's review of "Elk-Lake Serenade" here