The gist Darren Hayman finds yet another hobby, and makes yet another great LP The music Fresh from researching and writing about Lidos, Socialist wallpaper heroes, Essex and witching, Darren Hayman returns (he's been away for all of six months) with a newly compiled concept album. Thankful Villages has an equally narrow remit, this time focusing on the British villages where every soldier returned alive from World War I. Hayman has visited each of the 54 villages and made a piece of music and film for each one. An ambitious project I'm sure you'll agree, and one which takes Hayman's solo output into ever more serious territory. Not that the record doesn't have its light touches, this is after-all an album about those fateful few places that were spared some of the pain of WWI, it's an album about people, rather than war. The stories are many and varied, spread over 18 tracks, part documentary, part instrumental, part field recording, but also contains some classic Hayman songwriting (and wry humour). Some of the most effective tracks see relatives of the returning soldiers tell their family stories, like on "St Michael, South Elmham". Here Hayman initially supplements the story with a minimal guitar and percussion backing, but gradually it dawns on you that the music is reflecting the story as it progresses, as the storyteller becomes more emotional and excited, so does the music, climaxing like a low-key homecoming village hall jam. It's a wonderful technique and one which is partially repeated on some of the other interview segments which, after repeated listens reveal themselves as the real highlights of this LP. This is not to say that there are no traditionally structured songs available here. Hayman is at his romantic best on "Stoke Hammond", and some of the instrumental pieces are are beautifully textured soundtracks. This is the first of three Thankful Villages albums, and all the evidence here suggests that the next few years will be a vintage period for Hayman. A warmly uplifting album. Listen to "Strethall" - haunting and evocative lyrics with Hayman's now trademark warmly layered musical backing (think "Dagenham Ford" from Essex Arms), this is up there with the best of his solo work.