Robyn Hitchcock is one of pop’s great surrealists, an artist whose work has the appearance of familiarity yet none of its reassurance. While he often gets compared to poor old Syd Barrett (an acknowledged influence), this London native has closer relations outside the music world: Rene Magritte (logic-defying juxtapositions), Marcel Duchamp (dada absurdity), Edward Lear (whimsical, grotesque fabrications), Charles Addams (gloomy, cartoonish venom). Displaying a keen sense of irony as well as a dry, put-on (and put-upon) wit, Hitchcock’s creations — in song, story, graphics and film — erect puzzling layers of incredibility that stymie presumptions about motivation or meaning. At his worst, when his penchant for self-amusement runs away with him (as it sometimes does), Hitchcock can be far too self-conscious in his pretense of eccentricity, making nonsense seem equally glib and random. At his best, however, he wields bizarre imagery brilliantly to make stealth runs at life’s most challenging problems, elevating the mundane to provocative art.
Not truly a rock musician and too arch to be a folkie, Hitchcock has recorded both solo and with a group ever since dissolving the influential and offbeat new wave band, the Soft Boys, in 1980. (That group’s three “official” albums — A Can of Bees, Underwater Moonlight and Invisible Hits — were reissued in 1992 by Rykodisc, followed the next year by a two-CD classics/rarities collection, The Soft Boys 1976-81.)
Using his ex-bandmates for backing, Black Snake Diamond Röle gets Hitchcock’s second career off to a good start, beginning pointedly with the jaunty “The Man Who Invented Himself” and then taking a bewildering (but catchy) turn with “Brenda’s Iron Sledge.” He offers a sardonic knock at authority in “Do Policemen Sing?” (which features a chorus like a frenzied hail of blows) and a melodic, cracked-crystal ballad, “Acid Bird,” whose mood and production could stand proud next to “Eight Miles High.” Alternate takes on emotion — “Meat” (all brash) and “Love” (all heart) — finish off each side. The 1995 reissue (part of Rhino’s nine-disc program to rehabilitate and consolidate Hitchcock’s back catalogue) adds three tracks from later singles and two outtakes: a thuggish alternate version of the album’s unnerving admission of obsession, “I Watch the Cars,” and the proto-hip-hop of the next record’s “Grooving on a Inner Plane.”
Hitchcock’s second album wasn’t such a smooth ride. Hoping to get away from a standard guitar-based sound, he got Steve Hillage (ex-Gong) to produce. The result was the overambitious, rhythm-driven Groovy Decay (which employs, among other session hands, future Waterboy Anthony Thistlethwaite on sax and ex-Gang of Four bassist Sara Lee). “Fifty Two Stations” stunningly captures the alternation of rage, resignation and hope that follows the failure of love, while “St. Petersburg” views only the black side. “Grooving on an Inner Plane” blends an arch rap-styled vocal into a fluid groove with stirring results. In a surprising move several years later, Hitchcock did it his way, by putting out the revisionist Groovy Decoy. With almost an identical set of songs, the entirely reordered Decoy uses only four of Decay‘s recordings, substituting simple but effective demos produced (and played on) by onetime Soft Boys bassist Matthew Seligman for the rest. The results are a bit rudimentary next to the original release, but Hitchcock fans will want to hear both. A decade later, Rhino assembled both into Gravy Deco, adding “Kingdom of Love” and a laughable disco mix of “Night Ride to Trinidad.” (With all the physical releases out of print, Yep Roc reissued the original Groovy Decay online in 2009.)
Burned by that misadventure, Hitchcock didn’t go near a studio for two years. When he did, it was to record the mostly acoustic I Often Dream of Trains with a minimum of help. The spare piano and guitar arrangements make memories of Barrett’s solo albums inevitable, but Hitchcock’s fantasies are strictly his own: “Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl” (“…so I could look at myself in the shower”), “I Often Dream of Trains,” “Sounds Great When You’re Dead,” the a cappella “Uncorrected Personality Traits,” which is about difficult children when they grow up. Besides the exercises in neurotica, however, he delivers gorgeous, aching melodicism in “Cathedral” and “Flavour of Night.” The expanded Rhino version inserts the five bonus tracks from an intervening CD edition into the middle, adding a pair of songs from a contemporaneous 12-inch and five album demos. An oddity, to be sure, but one of Hitchcock’s most involving and unguarded outings.
Through a fateful series of circumstances, Hitchcock convened old Soft Boys pals Morris Windsor (drums) and Andy Metcalfe (bass) as the Egyptians and cut Fegmania!, establishing the shimmering, inconspicuous electro-pop sound that would become his benchmark. The material is both imaginative and confidently grounded, equal to morbid merriment in “My Wife & My Dead Wife,” metaphoric silliness in “The Man With the Lightbulb Head” (“I turn myself on in the dark”) and serious contemplation in “Glass.” The reissue adds three EP tracks (including a charming take on “Bells of Rhymney” that underscores the Byrdsy element in his work), three demos, a live track and a ten-minute instrumental, “The Pit of Souls Parts I-IV.”
With keyboardist Roger Jackson becoming an official Egyptian, Gotta Let This Hen Out! is an essential live album (and career retrospective) recorded April ’85 at London’s Marquee. Sampling all of his prior albums for items like “Brenda’s Iron Sledge,” “Heaven,” “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” and tossing in the acerbic “Listening to the Higsons” (a non-LP single that contains the live album’s title, borrowed from a Higsons song), Hitchcock and the three Egyptians do a fine job of putting the songs across in crisp, energetic fashion. A great introduction for neophytes and a treat for fans. The reissue adds three tracks from the same gig, left off the original album but previously available on Exploding in Silence EP. (Available on picture disc, that record contains six live cuts, only half of them from the album.)
Element of Light is another fine record, highlighted by the descending rock drama of “If You Were a Priest,” the arcing delicacy of “Winchester” and “Airscape,” the moody restraint of “Raymond Chandler Evening” and two eerie John Lennon-like apparitions: “Somewhere Apart” and the gay romance of “Ted, Woody and Junior.” Led by co-producer Metcalfe’s fretless bass luxuries, the Egyptians perfectly complement Hitchcock’s finely modulated writing and singing. Twice as long as the original, the reissue adds ten B-sides, prior CD bonus tracks, demos and a live number.
Long before Rhino began gathering up the leftovers, Hitchcock (recycling a Soft Boys LP title) did it himself. Invisible Hitchcock is a compilation of assorted outtakes dating from 1981-’85. A few songs (like “Grooving on an Inner Plane”) had previously surfaced in different versions, but most are heard here for the first time. The simple recording quality and mostly non-electric performances with various assortments of sidemen are entirely adequate, if not strictly consistent. Invisible may not be crucial but it is certainly illuminating, and a handful of rough gems (“All I Wanna Do Is Fall in Love,” “Trash,” “Give Me a Spanner, Ralph,” “I Got a Message for You”) make it a worthwhile purchase. The ’95 edition has six extras, the neatest of which is the B-side version of “Listening to the Higsons” — which begins with a wok (!) solo.
While clearing the vaults with one hand, Hitchcock was busy filling them with the other. You & Oblivion consists of 22 otherwise unreleased solo songs — mainly dating from the mid-’80s, but several older than that — and the first half of a short story, The Professor, he co-wrote with James Fletcher. (It concludes in the Invisible Hitchcock booklet.) Although the material is not first-rate, it’s by no means barrel-scrapings, and the album is a softly lined treasure trove of comely also-rans given rudimentary acoustic performances. “Victorian Squid” is evidence of an overly self-amused intellectual disposition and “Keeping Still” is coy sex advice, but “Birdshead,” “August Hair,” “Polly on the Shore” and “You & Me” are all outstanding.
Signed to a major American label for the first time, Hitchcock tried too hard and missed the target. His obscurely lucid liner notes on Globe of Frogs are more fascinating than the album, which neglects tuneful songwriting in favor of big beat exercises that would mask insubstantial content with busy production. “Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)” and “Chinese Bones” — beautiful pop confections featuring R.E.M. guitarist Pete Buck — keep things from sinking, but “Balloon Man” and the title track, while both likably silly, underscore Hitchcock’s annoying tendency to be selfconsciously absurdist.
Queen Elvis is the nadir of Hitchcock’s by now substantial body of work. The song structures are overly familiar, the weirdness seems forced and, worst of all, the emotions don’t seem real. He seems to have tapped out the veins he’d mined so rewardingly for more than a decade.
Wisely repeating the retreat/retrench tactic that proved so helpful once before, Hitchcock next stripped down for another acoustic solo record on an indie label. Eye is Hitchcock’s finest release since the first explosion of his post-Soft Boys career. Like I Often Dream of Trains, he casts off the influence of bandmates and producers to create a work of astonishing delicacy, beauty, honesty and power. As if to underscore the improvement, “Queen Elvis” is easily superior to anything on the LP with which it shares only a title. “Linctus House” is a gorgeous meditation on flagging love with the achingly drawn-out chorus “I don’t care anymore.” “Executioner” teases the entrails of another failed romance (“I know how Judas felt / But he got paid”). But the record opens with the jaunty proclamation “I’m in love with a beautiful girl,” so maybe things aren’t so bad after all. In any case, Eye finds Hitchcock still playing complex guitar figures, bending song structures and laying bare his emotions as no one has since Barrett recorded his dementia-in-progress. The reissue appends three demos which aren’t very different in sound from the album versions.
Given his prior bad experience, Hitchcock’s decision to use an outside producer couldn’t have been an easy one. The capable Paul Fox was a safe choice (he’s proven to be a mindful collaborator for XTC, Sugarcubes, 10,000 Maniacs and other tricky auteurs), but the very idea of a strong, if conservative, studio influence carries an element of risk. Perspex Island, which occasionally ignores the author’s emotional state to soar into delightful flights of psychedelic sprightliness, doesn’t always sound like much of anything. (Not much like Hitchcock, leastways.) Still, moved by heartbreak, Hitchcock’s songs are forceful and vivid; again steadied on solid ground, his lyrics have rarely been more direct or touching. Free of the past don’t-I-odd? affliction, the sardonic “So You Think You’re in Love,” the lonely “Birds in Perspex,” the desperate “If You Go Away” and the sadly resigned “She Doesn’t Exist” (for which Michael Stipe joins his bandmate Buck in the album’s guest book) are all poignantly top-notch.
Thus emboldened, Hitchcock recklessly made Respect with another XTC production alumnus, John Leckie. The gamble mostly paid off in a febrile high-tech album unlike anything in Hitchcock’s background. With Windsor and Metcalfe adding loads of lush vocal harmonies and using digital drums, keyboards and computers, many of the arrangements downplay guitar for an artificial sound that works once you get used to it. Leckie smartly picks up on both sides of a divided set of songs, modestly respecting the serious/solemn ones (“Arms of Love,” “Serpent at the Gates of Wisdom,” “Then You’re Dust”) and letting the madcap reins out for Hitchcock’s entertaining return to hallucinatory wordplay (“The Yip Song,” “Railway Shoes,” “The Wreck of the Arthur Lee,” “When I Was Dead,” the utterly ridiculous “Wafflehead”). Not a good place to start and not an album for narrow-minded fans, Respect is a tight squeeze through a narrow passage that leads Hitchcock safely out of one realm and into the grander possibilities of another.
Live at the Cambridge Folk Festival was recorded in 1992, but not released until six years later. For the most part, Hitchcock and the Egyptians play unplugged versions of songs whose original studio recordings were electric, but “Satellite” gets a full-band arrangement in place of the solo version on Eye. Give It to the Thoth Boys is a cassette-only release recorded at various 1991 and 1992 Egyptians gigs and sold at shows on the Respect tour. Despite the variety of venues (on both sides of the Atlantic), the performances and soundboard mixes are consistently excellent throughout. The tape includes the otherwise unreleased “The Live-In Years” and concludes with a rendition of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Well worth the search; the hard part, of course, is finding a copy that hasn’t been played a few thousand times.
The 19 tracks on The Kershaw Sessions were recorded for broadcast on the BBC, most of them for DJ Andy Kershaw’s show. About half of the original songs first appeared on the A&M albums; the rest range all the way back to Hitchcock’s first solo album. The CD includes a cover of Dylan’s “Open the Door, Homer,” and a jokey take on “The Banana Boat Song.” This Is the BBC is something of a sequel: 14 tracks recorded primarily for Kershaw’s program during the latter half of the ‘90s. The selection focuses on songs recorded since the previous BBC archival release, but reaches as far back as “Madonna of the Wasps” (from Queen Elvis). Like its predecessor, there’s a Dylan cover (“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”) and an in-the-studio gag (an off-the-cuff jingle for Kershaw’s show).
Robyn Hitchcock is a ten-song promotional-only CD featuring one tune from each of the artist’s post-Soft Boys releases, from Black Snake Diamond Röle through You & Oblivion (skipping the A&M albums), plus the previously unreleased “Statue With a Walkman.” Uncorrected Personality Traits excerpts more extensively from those same albums; Greatest Hits anthologizes the artist’s tenure at A&M. Given Rhino’s reputation for unearthing lost gems (to say nothing of Hitchcock’s penchant for cutting and then burying them), the straightforwardness of Uncorrected Personality Traits is surprising: no rarities, no outtakes, nothing that even appeared as a bonus track on any reissue. Meanwhile, even though Hitchcock’s recordings for A&M may be somewhat less respected, Greatest Hits turns out to be the bigger draw for fans. It includes five non-LP B-sides, a cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” (originally released on the “Madonna of the Wasps” maxi-single) and a live take on the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.”
In ’95, Hitchcock took a surprising dip back into the indie world, releasing a pungently informal three-song solo 7-inch (“I Something You” and “Zipper in My Spine” b/w “Man With a Womans Shadow”) on K Records. The following summer, delivered from the commercial netherworld of tiny labels, Hitchcock borrowed one of their tactics and released the vinyl-only Mossy Liquor a few weeks before Moss Elixir. While the two related but distinct albums have half their songs in common (including “Sinister but She Was Happy,” “Heliotrope,” “The Devil’s Radio” and “De Chirico Street”), the renditions are different. Overlapping the discography a shade further back, Moss Elixir retrieves the B-side of the K 45.
Filmmaker Jonathan Demme once made a well-received concert movie with another Warner Bros. act; perhaps the label anticipated a similar hit — a Start Making Sense — for its renowned cult star. The director shot Storefront Hitchcock in the display window of a New York shop, using the reactions of passers-by watching through the window as the backdrop. Guitarist Tim Keegan and violinist Deni Bonet (who both accompanied Hitchcock on Moss Elixir and Mossy Liquor) join him in his window display from time to time. The soundtrack album — a dozen tracks on CD, 17 on the double-LP — includes four new songs (two of which, “No, I Don’t Remember Guildford” and “1974,” were re-recorded for Hitchcock’s next two studio albums), a version of “Beautiful Queen” (from Moss Elixir) that didn’t make it to the film and a cover of Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.” As it turned out, Storefront Hitchcock didn’t generate much buzz beyond the faithful, and the star soon was back in the studio. (The project did have one notable upside for Hitchcock: he went on to appear in Demme’s 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate and his 2008 film Rachel Getting Married.)
For his next project, Hitchcock repeated the approach he employed for the Moss Elixir/Mossy Liquor pair: a high-profile album plus a companion piece. About half the songs on Jewels for Sophia (15 new originals plus a remake of “No, I Don’t Remember Guildford”) focus on acoustic guitar and light-fingered percussion, giving them a loose, offhand feel that’s immediately appealing. “The Cheese Alarm” starts out sounding like a sloppy jam, but soon coalesces into a driving, frisky pop song. “I Feel Beautiful” is a heartfelt paean to the value that love brings to one’s life: “People never celebrate the things they’ve got / Honey, without you, I wouldn’t have a lot.” On the more rocking side, “Sally Was a Legend” and “Antwoman” have a droning, psychedelic feel, and “Elizabeth Jade” and “NASA Clapping” both rock out with abandon (not to mention wailing harmonica on the latter). “Viva! Sea-Tac” is a uniquely Robynesque tribute/tour guide to Seattle, starting with its famous musicians (“People flocked like cattle to Seattle / After Kurt Cobain … Hendrix played guitar just like an animal that’s trapped in a cage / And one day he escaped”) before moving on to landmarks (“The Space Needle points to the sky / The Space Needle’s such a nice guy”) and other attractions (“Viva Seattle, Tacoma / Viva viva Sea-Tac…They’ve got the best computers and coffee and smack”). Jewels for Sophia involves a broad variety of studios, backing musicians and producers (some of whom would assume substantial roles in the artist’s later efforts), but as usual, Hitchcock’s distinctive songwriting and voice pull it all together well. The CD concludes with two unlisted tunes, the piano-driven “Mr. Tongs” and the supper-club joke “Don’t Talk to Me About Gene Hackman.”
A Star for Bram wraps a dozen outtakes from the Sophia sessions in the same cover art, printed in different colors. Like any album of Hitchcock leftovers, this one isn’t as consistent as his regular-issue albums, but includes plenty of first-rate songs. Highlights include the urgently strummed “The Philosopher’s Stone,” the rocking “Adoration of the City,” the appropriately fragile, beautifully melodic “I Saw Nick Drake” (“…at the corner of Time and Motion…I said, ‘You’re tall’ / He said, ‘No taller than tomorrow’s ocean’”), the chiming, psychedelic-yet-sweet “The Green Boy,” a superb electric remake of “1974” (from the Storefront Hitchcock soundtrack) and a “dub” version of “Antwoman.” Rare Jewels is a promo EP that includes two songs each from Bram and Sophia.
Robyn Sings is a two-CD collection of live Dylan covers. Disc One mostly draws from Dylan’s ‘60s repertoire, but also includes three later tunes (“Tangled Up in Blue,” “Dignity,” “Not Dark Yet”). He gives these songs sensitive readings, with the occasional lyric change, such as this gem he embeds in “Tangled Up in Blue”: “She was working in a topless place / And I stopped in for a top / I said I was missing half of my face / She said, ‘You’ve come to the wrong shop.’” He bookends the disc with different takes of “Visions of Johanna,” which he calls his favorite song. The first comes across simply as tribute, with the singer lapsing into obvious Dylanisms; the concluding one is a more personal interpretation that reflects as much on Hitchcock’s own artistry as it does on Dylan’s.
For the second disc, Hitchcock and the band Homer (guitarists Andrew Claridge and Tim Keegan, bassist Jake Kyle and drummer Patch Hannan) re-create the electric half of the long-bootlegged 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert — which actually took place at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in May of that year. (Three of the tracks on the first disc of Robyn Sings were recorded at the same gig, at the Borderline in London. The entire set had been released on the 1997 promo CD Royal Queen Albert & Beautiful Homer.) The band rocks out with enthusiasm, but the singer occasionally overdoes his efforts to commemorate the occasion, imitating Dylan’s low speaking voice and quoting his stage lines (“…if you just wouldn’t clap so hard!”). The ragged recording quality and the easily amused heckler hollering “Judas!” between songs don’t help. If nothing else, Robyn Sings shows how much Hitchcock owes Dylan in terms of phrasing, melodies, wordplay, the vivid imagery of his character studies and his willingness to be surreal, even willfully opaque. The English songwriter may call himself a “trainee Dylan,” but Robyn Sings underscores his standing as one of Dylan’s most inspired acolytes.
To celebrate his 50th birthday, Hitchcock recorded 13 new originals on acoustic guitar (with piano accompaniment on one song) and gave copies of the CD to attendees at his birthday gig in London. He released the album later on his own label. The songwriter’s recent exploration of Dylan must have inspired him: Luxor includes some of his most beautiful, expressive lyrics. “Idonia” is a splendidly wrought tale of unrequited love: “All the ghosts in love with you / They crane their sorry necks / Like a Viennese machine that’s just discovered sex…Losing comes so easily when you acquire the taste / Life is long and life is lost / And life is such a waste…Funny how your ceiling is somebody else’s floor / Feeling for Idonia…who won’t be back no more.” “One L” is a heartfelt love song to his girlfriend, photographer Michele Noach: “I love you in real life / And not just in this song that’s coming out of me.” Reflecting a bit on his recent reunion with his old band, “Solpadeine” includes the lines, “I was waiting for the soft boys … And I saw them coming across the dying grass / That long hot summer you were born.” Luxor parades Hitchcock’s enduring ability to charm, amuse, touch and bewilder listeners (sometimes all in the same song). As he sings in “Keep Finding Me,” “Follow me to the entrance of yourself / Sit up straight and close your eyes and see / What became of me.”
Spooked was cut in Nashville with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. (NRBQ bassist Joey Spampinato guests on two tracks.) As on I Often Dream of Trains and Eye, the arrangements focus on acoustic instruments and (with a few exceptions) eschew drums. But the starkness of Hitchcock’s usual unplugged approach is replaced by a warm, inviting ambience. Spooked blends the sparseness of bluegrass and the delicacy of classic English folk, using slide guitar, dobro and wonderful harmony vocals by the trio. The American musicians clearly appreciate their English collaborator’s whimsy, and let themselves go with it. On “Welcome to Earth,” Welch and Rawlings repeat “Crackle crackle / Pop” underneath Hitchcock’s greeting to aliens trying to reach the planet’s customer service department: “Press one for famine, two for pestilence, three for Condoleezza and four for death. Please note that pestilence closes at six.” Stand-out tracks include the quiet, aching “Television” (“Television, say you love me / Television, say you care / Loneliness is my profession / Show me those who are not there”), the driving “Everybody Needs Love,” the wistful “English Girl” (in which Hitchcock rhymes “girl” with more words in a single song than probably any other lyricist in history), the rustic, bluesy “Demons & Fiends,” the self-explanatory “Creeped Out” (the album’s most elaborate production), a mournful reading of Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” and the equally mournful closer “Flanagan’s Song.” Spooked hopefully will not be the last collaboration by these fine musicians.
Obliteration Pie is a Japanese release combining seven previously unreleased songs with remakes and live performances of five older Hitchcock tunes. It’s an expensive, hard-to-find disc, but the only one with Hitchcock’s cover of the ‘70s disco hit “Funkytown.” The CD also includes the video clips for “Man With the Lightbulb Head” and “I Often Dream of Trains.”
Olé! Tarantula is the official recorded debut of Hitchcock’s new regular band, the Venus 3, consisting of Peter Buck and his R.E.M. sidemen bassist Scott McCaughey (of the Minus 5 and formerly of Young Fresh Fellows) and drummer Bill Rieflin (ex-Ministry). With Kurt Bloch (ex-Fastbacks) behind the board, the Venus 3 is the most tightly focused backing ensemble Hitchcock’s had since the Egyptians, and the album is his first collection of all-new rock and roll songs since Jewels for Sophia and A Star for Bram. (Buck has long extolled the Soft Boys as one of his most beloved influences. The relish he takes in playing behind Hitchcock clearly shows on this album.) “Underground Sun,” “’Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram)” (a collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge), the drone-saturated “The Authority Box,” the saxophone-enhanced “Museum of Sex” and the album-closing “N.Y. Doll” (“Sincerely I remain / Arthur Kane”) are the highlights. The only really weak track is “Belltown Ramble,” whose name says it all; otherwise, Olé! Tarantula is a solid, enjoyable album.
Olé! Tarantula has a separately released “companion” disc. Sex, Food, Death … and Tarantulas (again, with the same artwork in a different color scheme) features Hitchcock and his new trio playing six songs in concert, reaching back as far as the Soft Boys classics “Queen of Eyes” and “Give It to the Soft Boys.” Performances and sound quality on this one are first-rate. The download version from Yep Roc adds two studio leftovers (“Luckiness” and “Copper Kettle”) and a live rendition of the otherwise unavailable “Cigarettes, Coffee and Booze.”
Deciding the time was ripe for another look-ma-no-band album (perhaps because Buck, McCaughey and Rieflin were busy recording and touring with, you know, R.E.M.), Hitchcock made Shadow Cat with a little guest support from ex-Captain Beefheart sideman Morris Tepper on guitar and ex-Higson (!) Terry Edwards on organ. The songwriter repeats himself a couple times on this one: “For Debbie Reynolds” is basically a re-write of “Queen Elvis” (trading one female icon for another) and “The Cat Walks Her Kind of Line” sounds like a demo of the Soft Boys’ “I Got the Hots for You.” The disc also includes new studio takes on “Statue With a Walkman” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” But the driving “Beautiful Shock” and “Never Have to See You Again,” the remake of “The Green Boy” (previously heard on A Star for Bram), the delicate “High on Yourself” and a pair of a cappella numbers, “Because You’re Over” and “Real Dot” (despite the electronically enhanced vocals), all stand out.
Yep Roc has released a pair of five-disc box sets of Hitchcock’s work. I Wanna Go Backwards combines Black Snake Diamond Röle, I Often Dream of Trains and Eye (each with bonus tracks) with two CDs of “rarities.” (Yep Roc also released the three original albums separately.) Half of the bonus tracks appeared on previous reissues of those albums, and most of the rarities appeared on Invisible Hitchcock and You & Oblivion. Demos of familiar tunes fill out the set. I Wanna Go Backwards does offer some previously unreleased songs and hard-to-find B-sides, but long-time fans might view this as an expensive way to acquire them. On the other hand, both Invisible Hitchcock and You & Oblivion are out of print, so fans who’ve been trying to catch up should look into this box. And of course, it offers one-stop shopping for newcomers to Hitchcock’s ‘80s work.
The other Yep Roc box, Luminous Groove, gives the same three-classics-plus-two-extra-discs treatment to Fegmania!, Gotta Let This Hen Out! and Element of Light. This time, though, the extras offer plenty for hardcore fans and newbies alike. Disc Four of the box consists entirely of previously unreleased songs, many of them from the Egyptians’ final studio sessions (this band had a lot more fuel left in its collective tank!). Disc Five is a concert recording from the Respect tour. Most of the songs on the last disc come from the A&M albums; the set list also includes the B-side tunes “The Ruling Class” and “The Living Years” (which last showed up as “The Live-In Years” on the Give It to the Thoth Boys cassette), and covers of “Eight Miles High” and Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” This is more like it. (As with its companion box, the three original albums in Luminous Groove were also issued separately.)
Following a series of 2008 bookings at which he performed I Often Dream of Trains from start to finish, Hitchcock returned to the studio with the Venus 3 to record Goodnight Oslo. The album gets off to a weak start, at least lyrically, with “What You Is” (“It doesn’t matter what you was / It’s what you is / And what you is / Is what you are”) and “Your Head Here” (“Ring my chimes, I’m a ding-dong daddy / Yes sirree, it’s true”). But things pick up from there with the horn-inflected, Hollies-ish fun of “Saturday Groovers” and “Up to Our Nex” (which appeared in the film Rachel Getting Married), the lonesome Western groove of “Hurry for the Sky,” the beautiful “I’m Falling,” and the haunting solemnity of “Sixteen Years” and the closing title track. The production — divided up between Charlie Francis (R.E.M., High Llamas), Craig Schumacher (Neko Case, Giant Sand, Calexico) and Kurt Bloch — has a bit more clarity and space than Olé! Tarantula, to the benefit of some superb vocal harmonies (with help from Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, and former Soft Boy/Egyptian Morris Windsor). Goodnight Oslo is an auspicious kickoff to the fourth decade of Robyn Hitchcock’s recording career.
I Often Dream of Trains in New York was recorded live at New York’s Symphony Space. Supported by Tim Keegan and Terry Edwards, as well as trumpeter Amir El Saffar (who performed with Hitchcock in Rachel Getting Married) and vocalist Gaida Hinnawi (who also has composed and recorded for Demme’s films), Hitchcock performs his 1984 classic in its entirety. (Well, almost in its entirety; “Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl” appears as a sort of jokey overture, played straight from cassette on the stage.) The set also includes “I Used to Say I Love You,” “Winter Love,” “My Favourite Buildings” and “That’s Fantastic, Mother Church” — outtakes from the sessions that have since found their way onto CD reissues. Tempos occasionally drag, noticeably enough that Hitchcock tells the band, “Okay, speed up slightly,” as they start the first encore, “America.” But the performance of “Uncorrected Personality Traits” is not to be missed. Along with “America,” the encores include “I’m Falling,” “Up to Our Nex” and the Fegmania! number “Goodnight I Say.” The package includes a DVD of the show. (A deluxe limited-edition version features a tri-fold cover in which the two discs can be assembled into a phenakistoscope, an old-fashioned animation device.)
Several of the tracks on the relatively laid-back Propeller Time — the gradually building opener “Star of Venus,” “The Afterlight” (with banjo by Neill MacColl), “Luckiness” and the harmonica-enhanced “Born on the Wind” (both also featuring MacColl’s banjo, as well as John Paul Jones on mandolin and Ruby Wright on musical saw) — hint at the bucolic air of Spooked. So does the title track, whose classic guitar chime gives way to a rustic fade-out. With help from Johnny Marr, Hitchcock and Buck weave a luscious web of guitars on “Ordinary Millionaire”; Kate St. John adds the perfect grace note with a lovely oboe melody. A haunting, vaguely music-box-like feel pervades “John in the Air” (“I would go hunting if I had my wish / I would go fishing if I was a fish”). The album-closing “Evolove” recalls John Lennon, not just in its melody or its spare bed of guitars and mellotron, but in lyrical outlook as well. Hitchcock sings, “What you call fate / I call Mum and Dad…They’re what you had, or never had…What you call faith / I call it pollution / What you believe is gonna kill us all,” before posing a more characteristic question: “And if Jesus was alive / Would you give him a high-five?” With his vocal harmonies enhancing most of the songs, Morris Windsor may as well be an adjunct member of the band on this disc. The same goes for Presidents of the United States of America guitarist Chris Ballew. Not as immediately catchy as Hitchcock’s last two albums with the Venus 3, Propeller Time nevertheless will get under the listener’s skin with a few listens.