Darren Hanlon

Little Chills

(Candle Records; 2004)

By Aaron Newell | 19 October 2007

In Melbourne, Australia there’s a suburb called Fitzroy. And in that suburb there’s a street called Brunswick Street. And on that street there’s a record shop called Polyester records. I used to hang out there.

Polyester only has one listening station. The headphones are crap, you have to put them on ten to hear your CD, and if you move your head the wrong way you get a wince-inducing blast of static. Because of my low pain threshold, I spent most of my browsing time listening to whatever the clerk was playing on the shop speakers, usually having to ask what it was. On my last full day in Melbourne my friend Nate was playing Little Chills.

“What’s this?”
“Darren Hanlon’s new one.”
“Who’s that?”
“Nice guy, stops by here a lot.”
“This song is about squash?”
“I know.”
“It’s good. Is it on the racks?”
“Not released yet---but this comes highly recommended” (hands me a copy of Hanlon’s 2002 release Hello Stranger).
“I guess I’ll take this, then.”
“Do you want to listen to it?”
“No, no I don’t. Thanks.”

Nate was kind enough to send me a copy Little Chills as soon as Candle Records permitted, and now I’m at a bit of a moral crossroads about the album. It’s been my pet for the past month, has followed me everywhere, and I’ve become quite attached. I have to review it because, as I keep telling myself, it’s not a best friend, it’s a compact disc. And it’s fantastic, so people should know about it. But the minute this review uploads it won’t belong to me any more; I will have given it away to the millions of discerning listeners that visit our site every hour. I apologize in advance if I can’t help but drag out the goodbye.

Primer: Hanlon sounds like Colin Meloy if Colin Meloy had his sinuses repaired and, while he may not share Meloy’s nasals, he does have an equally-revelatory eye for detail. Hanlon sings in his talking voice, from the top of his chest. He works one note outside his range on either end, makes no attempt to conceal his Australian accent (unlike, say, Jet), and fills his songs with either charmingly quirky new ways to update traditional themes or charmingly quirky new themes that have seldom, if ever, been sung before. I’ll go out on a limb: although sections of this record sounds like the best parts of Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance (2001) played in a much better mood (but equal or better capability), you will hear something new to you on each of these eleven songs.

See, Hanlon sounds less like the guy who’d jump up and play his guitar at a house party and more like the guy everyone has to nudge into telling a late-night story when it’s just close, drunk friends sitting on the floor in the kitchen. We’re just lucky that he sets his stories against beautifully arranged, tactfully produced, and faultlessly infectious guitar-pop.

The album starts with “Wrong Turn”, a soft marvel of smokey atmospheric production setting the scene of Darren having stumbled into a mystical pub filled with “Ancient Chinese sages,” some playing pinball. We’re all oddly intrigued, and Hanlon’s tempted to stay and observe, but he sings: “It’s not me to make like a chandelier / So I folded up my map and drained my beer / I’m gone.”

“A to Z” is the vessel he casts off in. The drunken ship-swaying beer ballad channels a much-mellowed Mangum as Hanlon tells the object of his adoration that he wants to be with her forever: “There’s never an argument, I don’t need an apology / it’s all half a dozen eggplants or six aubergines / Please sing me the entire Beatles anthology / From ‘All My Loving’ to ‘Yellow Submarine.’” Prancing drums, fading strums, and a matching brass section trumpet the ship’s send-off as the couple sets sail.

“Ends of the City” hints at happy sacrifice. Hanlon runs down a list of city-bound self-improvements to be made (“I want to know the names of all the bars / And say hi to that guy upstairs although I hate him / And stop littering in other peoples cars”), but will abandon them, and the home he’s attached to, in a blink: “I believe to leave is impossible / But I will leave if you can’t live there.” Pop-rock country-blues guitars and pronounced and precise percussion all halt for sullen atmospherics as Hanlon promises, “Back to you I go”, and the rock quickly regroups to smilingly punctuate his promise as the song closes.

Aside from the usual guitar, piano, drums and bass (Tortoise’s Doug McCoombs’ bass, at that), and the brilliant occasional flourishes of violin, cello, vibraphone, and horns, Little Chills’ instrumentation reads like a list of what they couldn’t sell at the charity flea market. Calexico's Craig Schumacher (who recorded the album) donates a bass harmonica and a trombone, Frida Eklund (Dazza’s girlfriend) plays a toy accordion on “Service Station” which also features a Sufjan-quality anonymous banjo, The Rebel Astronauts’ Bree Van Eyke lends a music box and a drum machine, and Hanlon himself revives the fetishist collector’s favourite optigan, that abbreviated toy organ marketed by Mattel in the early 70’s and discontinued by Mattel in the early '70s.

And here is where I should be able to discuss an album highlight of the use of basement-treasure instrumentation, but the entire album is near-perfectly arranged, the playing (ok, especially the percussion/synth playoff on the Mickey-Modest-Mousey “The Unmade Bed”) is fantastic with tactful start-stops and well-timed flourishes. Listener focus will rarely deviate from Hanlon’s engaging personality, but will have a playground of sounds to move to when the odd lyric proves a little too novel (perhaps, maybe, twice on the entire recording, given a listener who revels in oddball imagery and sweet, charming poetics). But to be fair: each song on this record is witty, warm, and strikingly original despite operating firmly within the burgeoning tradition set by the best contemporary indie rock. To choose a highlight is like picking a favourite Tim Tam: you’re always wrong, but you’re always right.

Little Chills is an album that you will feel obligated to lend to friends who will, in turn, get back to you with gushing thanks and blatant lies about how they lost it. A close Melbournian friend of mine says she’s aware of just a few acquaintances who know about Hanlon, but that each is wholly smitten and keeps back-up copies of his work to give away. The worst part about word of mouth is the copyright infringement. The best part is that you know your work is loved enough to get tucked into Christmas cards, given to close friends, and receive the infamous “You’ve never heard of him? I have to make you a copy.” Little Chills is too good for its own good.

Don’t be a thieving smartass hypocrite like Newell and his “friends”; the only place you’ll get Little Chills online is www.candlerecords.com.au. Darren survives on word of mouth and we love his music and want more, so we’ve hooked up a deal: if you tell Candle Records that CMG sent you they’ll throw in a label sampler with your purchase.