Tuesday, March 31, 2009
It's the last day of month, so it's time for my final entry in the month of Robyn Hitchcock albums, and his most recent offering Goodnight Oslo. This is Robyn's second album with the Venus 3 and his third for Yep Roc. I forgot to post about Shadow Cat, yet another odds & sods collection that came out last year. It's okay, but nothing special.
Goodnight Oslo has only been out a little over a month, and I haven't had time to dig deep into it in between rediscovering Robyn's back catalog, but I'm really enjoying it after a handful of listens. It seems like a sequel to Ole! Tarantula, an album that I'm still wearing out after two years, and I need more albums like that. I agree with the assessment that the first song "What You Is" is probably the weakest track and the final one "Goodnight Oslo" is the strongest. Song for song, it doesn't seem as strong as O!T, but the high points are as good as anything he's ever done. Robyn's best album since his last one, and also until his next one. Here's "Up To Our Nex", one of the better songs from the album, that was recently featured in Jonathan Demme's film Rachel Getting Married
And we're out.. Goodnight, Oslo!
Thanks to everyone for following and commenting on these entries and keeping me honest (especially new commenters like Tulloch and the Modesto Kid). I've had so much fun, that I'm going to find another artist to explore in April. Hopefully someone with fewer than 20 albums in their catalog!
Monday, March 30, 2009
This year I had the same final four picks that Pres. Obama did, and both our brackets sunk together, with just one of the four selections (UNC) making it. I'm 40/60 so far, and two out of three ain't bad in most things, but falls below the Mendoza line in the NCAA Tournament, where anything less than 70% is failure.
Across the pond, the final four in the FA Cup are Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Everton. Four teams in the top six of the Premier League = Bor-ring! Where are my overachieving underdogs?
Tomorrow I'll conclude my month of Robyn with a post about Goodnight Oslo. What does everyone think of that one?
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Just two more albums to go in the full Robyn Hitchcock discography, and three days remaining in March, so things are heading to a close. Robyn's second Yep Roc album, Olé! Tarantula, marked his return to Soft Boys/Egyptians style electric rock. He recorded it in late 2005 in Seattle with the Venus 3 -- Peter Buck (guitar), Scott McCaughey (bass), and Bill Reiflin (drums) -- backing him up, and it came out the following year.
Buck, McCaughey, and Rieflin are also 3/4ths of the Minus Five and 3/5ths of the touring version of R.E.M., and Olé! Tarantula was recorded just after the conclusion of the Around The Sun tour. Olé! Tarantula is almost like a reaction to ATS, attempting to be everything that that album isn't. It's also a U-turn from Robyn's previous album Spooked, taking the same collaborative feel to a ROCK album. My favorite songs on Jewels For Sophia were the ones he did with these guys, so I was looking forward to this album, and had it in heavy rotation for a long time after it came out.
It's hard to judge things after just a couple of years, but I think Olé! Tarantula is one of my favorite Robyn Hitchcock ever did. I think it's stronger than any Egyptians album, and any solo record except possibly I Often Dream Of Trains. It's something I can listen to at any time, I've had it on my iPod for two years straight, and like almost every song, even the six plus minute "Belltown Ramble" and the jokey "A Man's Got To Know His Limitations, Briggs". There are songs (like "Authority Box" and "Red Locust Frenzy") that I tend to skip when they come up in shuffle play, but the album flows well from start to finish. Plus it rocks.
I think the first half of the album (through the title track) is a solid block of greatness. The first song "Adventure Rocket Ship" is up there with "I Wanna Destroy You" as an all time RH album opener. It came out as a single (whatever that means in the 21st century) with a cool video, and sounded like a hit to me.
Also worth picking up (or clicking down) is the bonus EP Sex, Food, Death and Tarantulas which has these videos plus a batch of live songs by the Venus Three, and the Sundance documentary "Sex, Food, Death, and Insects" which recently came out on DVD. Good stuff all around.
Friday, March 27, 2009
In 2004, Robyn Hitchcock signed up with Yep Roc (the home of middle-aged indie rockers) and released a collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings called Spooked.
The album was recorded and mixed in less than a week at Woodland Studios in Nashville, with limited overdubbing and everything recorded live. The results are equal parts Hitchcock, Welch & Rawlings, but still sounds, more or less, like a slightly above average Robyn Hitchcock album.
Spooked is the sort if album that gets three stars in Rolling Stone, a 7.2 in Pitchfork, and a 74 (generally favorable) in metacritic. The very embodiment of "okay". For me, Spooked is an album that I enjoy while it's playing, but none of the songs really stand out, so it's never stuck with me as an album.
I like the first song "Television" (the "bing a bong a bing" intro is really infectious) but it seems longer than it needs to be. The Dylan cover ("Trying To Get To Heaven") is interesting but also kind of long, and many other songs are just kind of "there". The two standouts on the album for me are "Everybody Needs Love" (a Beatlesque love song, complete with sitars) and "If You Know Time" (a great song that dates back to the 2002 Soft Boys tour). Here's a video of that one set to scenes from the 2002 "Time Machine" movie.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
At the start of 2003, the post-9/11 malaise of the Bush recession provided me with some unintended free time, along with a few months of severance, so I decided spend a few weeks traveling in Europe. My week in London happened to coincide with Robyn Hitchcock's 50th birthday concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, an evening long celebration of his career, with past and future collaborators and cohorts.
All 500 or so attendees of that QEH show were presented with a signed and numbered CDRs of Luxor, an solo acoustic album that Robyn recorded in honor of the occasion. This added a nice personal touch to the show, and I don't think Robyn ever intended for it to be a "real" album.
When I played Luxor the day after the show, it was a perfect soundtrack to a
Croydon morning with the sun through yellow curtains, milk and toast and honey, tea and oranges that came all the way from China, and other items from early Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen songs. The songs poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses, and I listened to the album twice all the way through.
That was unfortunately a once in a lifetime experience, and after that curtain closed and the rainbow ran away, Luxor didn't sound as magical to me. Since it was a solo acoustic album, a lot of reviews compared it to Eye or I Often Dream Of Trains, but I think it's closer to You & Oblivion -- a bunch of songs on the same disc that wasn't intended to be "an album".
When I play Luxor now, there are a lot of things to like on the surface, like the sound of the guitars and voice, but when I try to listen to the album, I can't find anything there. Almost every song has the same tempo and the same modal guitar backing, and sounds more like the work of some earnest folkie at Wednesday night mic than the great Robyn Hitchcock.
It's almost disheartening to listen to Luxor as anything other than background music, but one keeper on the album (for me) is "Keep Finding Me", which wins my alphabetical award as the best Robyn Hitchcock song whose title starts with the letter K.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
In 2001, Robyn Hitchcock reformed the Soft Boys to tour behind the 20th anniversary reissue of Underwater Moonlight (which turned out to be the 21st anniversary due to various delays). These shows provided an opportunity for American fans like me who never saw the Soft Boys play to finally see the band two decades later.
And the Soft Boys reunion show I saw at the Fillmore on April 7th, 2001 was one of the best concerts I've ever seen in my life! Since it was the Underwater Moonlight band (with Matthew Seligman on bass, Kimberley Rew on guitar, and Morris Windsor on drums) and they were ostensibly touring behind UM, they played mostly songs from that album, with a couple of earlier ones from A Can Of Bees ("Leppo" and "Human Music") and a few new songs the Boys had written after reforming. I thought the new songs sounded just as great as the older ones, so I was looking forward to a new Soft Boys album.
When Nextdoorland came out the following year, I was kind of disappointed. The songs I'd heard at the Fillmore ("Sudden Town" and "My Mind Is Connected") sounded just as good as they did at that show, but I thought it was three good songs and seven spotty ones. When they played S.F. the following year (at Slim's), they were selling a self-released bonus EP called Side 3, which added a few more good songs (most notably "Narcissus"). I tend to think of Nextdoorland and Side 3 as a single unit that makes a lot more sense than its individual components.
Yesterday I found this Nextdoorland-era quote from a Rolling Stone interview with Robyn (while looking for release info on Robyn Sings) about fans reactions to the album, and it struck me as particularly apt: "They'll be initially pleased to hear it, and then they'll say it's not as good as Underwater Moonlight and then about five years down the line they'll probably get to like it on its own merit". Six years later, that's my opinion of Nextdoorland in a nutshell -- it's not Underwater Moonlight II, but I've come to like it on its own merit.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
If I post about one of Robyn's self-released Editions PAF! albums, I guess I probably need to post about all of them! Robyn Sings was his second self-released album (sold direct at shows and at his website) consisting of two discs of Bob Dylan covers, mostly performed live. The discs are designated as "stripes" and "dots".
The "stripes" disc contains songs from throughout Dylan's career that Robyn performs solo, usually with a guitar and harmonica, like Bob would do them. It includes two performances of "Visions of Johanna" (which a really long song), "Tangled Up In Blue", "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", and newer songs like "Dignity" (from the Oh Mercy era) and "Not Dark Yet" (from Time Out Of Mind). Here's Robyn performing that one with John Paul Jones (yes, the Led Zep dude!) at a 2005 Dylan tribute show.
While the first disc is kind of like Dylan's solo set from the 1966 "Royal Albert Hall" concert, the second ("spots") disc is an exact re-enactment of Dylan's electric portion of that 1966 concert, as performed by Robyn Hitchcock & Friends (mostly the band Homer) at a 30th anniversary show at the Borderline in London (25 May 1996). The same eight songs ("Tell Me Momma"-sic through "Like A Rolling Stone") performed in the exact same order right down to the audience banter ("Judas!", "You're a liar"). It also uses modern digital sound to reproduce the lo-fi audience recording of the original concert. I think it's the keeper of the bunch.
Robyn's done a few other "special" shows where he recreates classic albums and concerts (The White Album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Jimi Hendrix's 1970 Isle of Wight concert), but this is the best of the bunch, mainly because of its amazing attention to detail. Robyn Sings is probably just a minor footnote in the context of Robyn Hitchcock's career, and only worth searching out for die hard Dylan and/or Hitchcock fans, but there are certainly worse ways to use up your emusic downloads.
I think I'll blog Bob Dylan next month. Forty plus albums in thirty days in April! Unfortunately I only own about ten of them, but I could just make up stuff on albums like Knocked Out Loaded ("a forgotten gem!") because it's not like anyone actually knows enough about those albums to call me on it!
Monday, March 23, 2009
Right after the turn of the millennium, Robyn Hitchcock released an album of outtakes from Jewels For Sophia called A Star For Bram on his own Editions/PAF label.
The album is a companion to Jewels right down to the cover art, but holds its own against its older brother, song-for-song. The first four songs in particular are as good as anything on Jewels For Sophia. I still can't believe how "I Saw Nick Drake" didn't make the cut for that album!
This song was released on the cusp of the VW-inspired Nick Drake revival, and sounds like a lost song from the man himself. It's been one of my favorite Robyn Hitchcock songs since the first time I saw him perform it live.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Robyn Hitchcock's second (and final) studio album for Warners was 1999's Jewels For Sophia. The songs for this album were recorded in four cities with four different producers (most notably Jon Brion) and an assortment of backing musicians, but I think it hangs together pretty well as an album.
Jewels is in my regular rotation, and I listen to it a lot more than Moss Elixir, for example. The tracks with Jon Brion ("Mexican God",etc) were recorded at Jon's house in L.A., so they have a "hangin' at the Largo with Jon and Robyn" sort of feel. The tracks recorded in Seattle with Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck ("Viva Sea-Tac" and "Elizabeth Jade") are like proto-Venus 3 tracks, and the ones recorded in London sound like extensions of Moss Elixir. It sounds more like a compilation of multiple EPs than a complete LP, but all the songs are great, and the producers (even Brion) don't overwhelm them with too many flourishes.
Here's a performance of my favorite song from the album "I Feel Beautiful" (after a minute or so of hangin' with Jon & Robyn in Santa Monica) from an unaired 1999 pilot of the Jon Brion show. The vibraphone is fortunately a lot less prominent in the recorded version of the song!
A few months after the release of Jewels For Sophia, Robyn released an album of outtakes called A Star For Bram on his own Editions/PAF label. It's kind of a companion/extension to Jewels (the Side 3 to its Nextdoorland), but I think Bram merits its own blog entry, so I'll post about it next, either tomorrow or later today. We've made it to the new millennium!
Friday, March 20, 2009
As big a fan as I am, I've never been a collector of Robyn Hitchcock live recordings. I like Gotta Let This Hen Out! and some other "official" live things, but his live concerts suffer from too much talk and not enough rock. This is okay while you're in the venue in the moment enjoying the show, but doesn't play well for me after I've heard it.
The actual performances on Storefront, with Robyn on guitar and Deni Bonet on violin and Tim Keegan on guitar, are some of my favorite versions of these songs, but his monologues drag the movie (and album) down for me. I made a tape of the LP with all the talking edited out, and it worked so much better for me than the actual disc (which has the introductions split as separate tracks, so we can skip them -- thanks Robyn!)
I saw a daytime matinee of Storefront at the Red Vic in SF a few days after it opened, and there were seven people in the theater! Still more than the four people I saw at showing of the Nick Drake film A Skin Too Few, but it was still scarily empty. That's the only time I've ever seen the film -- I've never seen it on IFC or PBS or anywhere else on TV, and don't have the DVD. I'd like to buy one, especially if they have the song introductions split as separate tracks.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
This is my latest attempt to make a real record-- something to listen to, rather than music that helps you buy clothes. The last two albums I made with the Egyptians seemed too airtight, in retrospect. I had originally wanted Respect to be recorded with the musicians sitting around the table and singing into a bowl of fruit; somehow, production, budgets and musicianship all intervened to make a far more dense record than some of the songs warranted.
Hindsight is a groovy bedfellow. But it left me all the more determined to add only what was NECESSARY next time I went into the studio. When I started recording the songs for Moss Elixir, I had no deal, no producer and no money for a band. So I was able to build the tracks up slowly. "Filthy Bird," for instance, was recorded in June, 1994. By the following July, I could afford to fly Deni Bonet over from New York to play violin on it.
Having played a lot of shows alone, or with Deni on violin, I've gotten used to filling the stage by myself. Also, after 20 years, I can finally hear what I'm doing. So I've lost the band habit. But a few of the songs seemed to need a rhythm section, so for these, Tim Keegan kindly lent me his group, Homer. Drummer Patch Hannan also plays with the Sundays, and Jake Kyle is bassist with the Blue Aeroplanes.
I've never been a sax fiend, mainly because of the way the saxophone is deployed; the ghastly mellow tootling as the lovers ooze through Central Park in corporate movies, or the brassy squiggles that emerge whenever a rock act is wealthy enough to afford extra musicians. But, on the fringe of the horn scene, dwell some interesting souls. Ntchuks Bonga has made an album, Tshisha , that creates a vivid emotional landscape using sax, cello and percussion. I was lucky enough to track him down to add flock-of-birds horns to "Devil's Radio." My ancient friend James Fletcher, played and arranged art-horns on "DeChirico Street." Dave Woodhead, a regular contributor to Billy Bragg, added his cascading trumpets to "Beautiful Queen."
This project has no production as such. I've produced it inasmuch as that I've caused it to exist. Pat Collier, veteran of numerous Soft Boys and Egyptians sessions, came in to help out with the band tracks. My partner, Michele Noach, has listened to every prospective tape that has gone into this thing, and she has steered it with me towards the magical gates of release. But I always associate the word "production" with some kind of sheen--a sugar buzz patina that has the listener lying on their back, almost licking the record: and there is none of that here. In that respect, I think this is a real record.
Robyn Hitchcock, May 1996
After being overloaded by the unwise recording choices on the last few Egyptians albums, I had high hopes for Moss Elixir, especially after hearing the songs performed live. I even took the plunge during its release week and subscribed to the fegmaniax email list, to get some "true fan" observations about the new record.
I was astounded to find out that almost everyone on the feglist hated the album: "it's not as good as the songs are live", "it's not as good as Mossy Liquor" (vinyl version that I still haven't heard), "it's not as good as Respect, and that sucked too!". I've never seen a group of fans be so down on a particular album. I think I just joined the list on a bad hair week, when all the obnoxious members (obnoxious guy who didn't like Brian Wilson - check, obnoxious guy who didn't like Scott Miller & the Loud Family - check, obnoxious right wingnuts who thought Billy Bragg was a pinko commie who should be shot - double check!) were front and center. Needless to say, I've never had a more negative opinion of anything than my opinion of the fegmaniax mailing list in August 1996, and ended up sending "getmeouttahere" to majordomo to get off that list as fast as I could!
This experience soured me on Robyn Hitchcock for at least a year, until I realized that I didn't need to be a fan of Robyn's fans to be a Robyn fan (say that three times fast!). And Moss Elixir isn't a bad album, it's actually a pretty good one, but it suffers from a lack of variety, so it's kind of challenging for me to listen to all the way through in one sitting. Maybe those fegs were right?
Here's a Storefront take of one of my favorites from the album "Devil's Radio".
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
In early 1995, Rhino records reissued all of Robyn Hitchcock's non-A&M albums (Black Snake thru Element Of Light plus Eye) along with a collection of previously unreleased tracks called You & Oblivion.
This was a collection of spared down demos that Robyn had accumulated through the 80s and early 90s when A&M kept him on a short leash (ten songs per album, no exceptions!). Everything on You & Oblivion was recorded direct to DAT, most songs with just guitar and vocal, so it has a very clean sound -- almost like Robyn Hitchcock playing in your living room. I listened to Y&O quite a bit after it came out, but haven't pulled it out very often in the past decade. It sounds really good while it's playing, but the songs all kind of blend together, without enough variety to support repeat listening. Something of a recurring theme in Robyn Hitchcock's career.
One of the highlights on You & Oblivion are "Birdshead" (recorded with Chris Cox and Peter Buck in early 1985, and I can't believe it stayed unreleased for an entire decade!), "Mr. Rock & Roll" (often performed live), and a version of "Polly On The Shore" (traditional folk tune recorded by Martin Carthy, Fairport Convention, and others) recorded on KUSF radio in 1986. The rest is something you need to be in the mood to hear, but it always sounds great when you are!
Here's a version of another song that Robyn Hitchcock released in 1995, "I Something You". It came out on a K Records single, but I've still never heard the recorded version. This is a live performance from Storefront Hitchcock, complete with a long pre-song monologue.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Today's Robyn Hitchcock calendar is at 1994, another year when he didn't release anything, so I'm setting it back twenty years to 1974 (when Robyn Hitchcock was working at the Earth Exchange and half 22, and "Rebel Rebel" was his favorite song -- if his songs are autobiographical), and the list of songs that Scott Miller selected from that year in his most recent edition of "Music - What Happened?" last week. If you filter out stuff like "Mandy" and "Sweet Home Alabama", you could assemble this nine song playlist on 8tracks.com.
1974 - Music: What Happened?
1. Amateur Hour - Sparks
2. Back of a Car - Big Star
3. Candidate - David Bowie
4. Fear (is a Man's Best Friend) - John Cale
5. Free Man in Paris - Joni Mitchell
6. Just a Chance - Badfinger
7. Killer Queen - Queen
8. Tell Me Something Good - Rufus
9. #9 Dream - John Lennon
Monday, March 16, 2009
The final Egyptians album, and only google-proof Robyn Hitchcock album, was 1993's Respect.
This has always been one of my favorites and seemed like a more focused comeback after Perspex Island, and it wasn't until I found my way to the internet that I found out that other Robyn Hitchcock fans didn't have much respect for it. I also found out that the last song "Wafflehead" seems to be everyone's least favorite Robyn Hitchcock song. I don't love it, but it seems like a fun little track to me.
Most of the songs on Respect were written during the Egyptians acoustic tour in 1992, and recorded in the same settings, which curtailed some of the excesses of their previous albums. The result is an understated album that's stood the test of time fairly well. Respect was recorded at Robyn's house on the Isle of Wight and produced by John Leckie, who spruced up the acoustic based tracks with (sometimes unnecessary) synths and strings. Some of the songs (like "Arms Of Love") suffered from the Leckie's sprucing, but others like "Railway Shoes" and "Wreck of the Arthur Lee" are helped.
At the time, Respect reminded me a lot of R.E.M.'s Automatic For The People, since the albums came out within a few months of each other and explore similar themes. Also, R.E.M. covered "Arms Of Love" as the b-side to "Man On The Moon", and their cover came out before Robyn's original. Here's another version of that song, a duet with Robyn and Deni Bonet from "duets with Deni".
As well as the final Egyptians album, Respect was also Robyn Hitchcock's last album for A&M. The four albums he made for that label are all out of print, with no signs of being reissued, but probably marked his commercial high point as an artist.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Anyway, 1992 was another year that Robyn Hitchcock didn't release anything (other than the Soft Boys Ryko reissues, of albums already discussed), so I can take a much-needed day off and post my NCAA tournament bracket.
I haven't been following college basketball at all this year, because my alma mater had a down year, and ended up in something called the collegeinsider.com tournament, which is apparently even lower than the CBI (where they played last year).
Since I'm flying blind and had fairly good luck "picking chalk" last year (four #1 seeds that all made it to the final four), I decided to do almost the same thing this year. Three #1 seeds and a #2.
Here are my tournament picks for 2009.
Final Four: North Carolina, Louisville, Memphis, Pittsburgh
Finals: Pittsburgh, North Carolina
You heard it here first!
Saturday, March 14, 2009
With that said, "So You Think You're In Love" is a wonderful single that should have been a hit. Probably the most accessible song of Robyn Hitchcock's career. Here's a clip of the Egyptians performing the song on CNBC of all places!
The "yeah" at the end of this song is one of my favorite musical moments ever! Notice how the clueless host introduces them as "Robert Hitchcock & the Egyptians".
At least he didn't call them "losers" for overextending their mortgage or encourage them to double down on Bear Sterns just before they went under -- it might not even be one of the top ten stupidest things ever broadcast on CNBC!
Friday, March 13, 2009
Both of the Robyn Hitchcock concerts I saw last year, his April show at the Fillmore (opening for Nick Lowe) and his November show at the Great American Music Hall were mostly dedicated to single albums. The April show was dedicated to Eye and the November show was dedicated to I Often Dream Of Trains.
I prefer IODOT as an album, but I liked the Eye concert more as a show. This was Robyn Hitchcock's "San Francisco album", arising mostly as a reaction to his previous one Queen Elvis.
Instead of recording with his entire band in a big studio for a major label, Robyn scaled everything down and recorded everything by himself in a small studio for an independent later, and achieved results that were closer to what he's about. Eye is certainly clickot, cool, and everything else!
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The Trouser Press guide calls Queen Elvis "the nadir" Robyn Hitchcock's body of work, and while I wouldn't go that far (I like it better than Perspex Island, for one), it suffers from uninspired songs and "too much sound". It sounds like Robyn is trying to write "hits" instead of doing what he does best, and most of the lyrics seem forced.
Robyn & the Egyptians were scheduled to open for R.E.M. on a large stadia tour after the release of Queen Elvis, so Robyn had to shelf a bunch of acoustic songs he'd written (many of which ended up on Eye including the song "Queen Elvis") and had to write more "band-like" songs that they could play live.
I saw two of the R.E.M. shows on that tour (Sacramento and Oakland), and many Queen Elvis songs worked well in concert, but not as well on disc. One of the best RH gigs I saw was a secret club show at SF's Paradise Lounge in between the two arena shows. The show was billed as "Nigel & the Crosses", which many people suspected was R.E.M. incognito, but tuned out to be Robyn Hitchcock, Peter Buck, Peter Holsapple, and Mike Mills playing a bunch of 60s Beatles, Byrds, Kinks covers. The "band" was named after Nigel Cross (founder of Bucketful Of Brains fanzine) and ended up playing a few more surprise gigs in Chicago and London that year, as well as doing "Wild Mountain Tyme" for a Byrds tribute.
"Madonna Of The Wasps" had a very cool video that got regular rotation airplay on MTV (not just on "120 Minutes" and "Postmodern MTV" -- remember that show?) but none of the Egyptians' A&M videos are available on youtube. Here's a video of Robyn playing "Madonna Of The Wasps" on Late Night With David Letterman, with Letterman's band (Paul Shaffer & co.) backing him up.
As far as decades go, the 1980s couldn't end soon enough for me..
On to the 1990s!
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
SOMEWHERE inside a glowing kernel of peace is an irritant- an inflamed seed that messes up the organism. We are best seen as conductors, through which solids, air, and liquids flow constantly, matched by a whorl of loosely related thoughts. If am a prophet of chaos, then this is truly my age; but perhaps I am a prophet of order, recoiling in disgust from the uncontrollable force of life. inside and out. This album does not deal with the conventional problems of so-called "real" life: relationships, injustice, politics, and central heating systems, about which it's notoriously hard to talk because orthodox lines of cliche have been devised for and against everything. In the short span of a song- let alone a newspaper- it is easy to descend to slogans and dogma: Thatcher is bad, vegetables are good, show business is indifferent. Everybody who wants to know that knows it already. The dinosaurs graze in the last warm valley, avoiding the icy winds. To go into "issues" at the length they merit requires the depth- and double-talk- of a politician. I'm concentrating instead on the organic. All of us exist in a swarming, pulsating world, driven mostly by an unconscious that we ignore and misunderstand. Within the framework of "civilization" we remain as savage as possible. Against the dense traffic of midern life, we fortify our animal selves with video violence, imaginary sex, and music: screw you, mate- here I go! One side, mother____er! give it to me, baby, as often and as beautifully as possible- eat lead, infidel scum. mostly we contain ouselves. sexual crimes, and private murders are still news (legalized murders, though, such as executions, wars and the systematic deprivation of the helpless, seldom make the headlines). But our inflamed and disoriented psyches smolder on beneath the wet leaves of habit. insanity is big business. and vice versa. religion isn't dead either. The antichrist will have access to computers, television, radio, and compact disk. If he walks among us already, the chances are that he has a walkman. I just hope it's not christ himself, disillusioned after two thousand years in a cosmic sitting room full of magazines and cheeseplants, turned malignant and rotting in despair at the way his message has been perverted. My contention is, however- and it's a bloody obvious one- that beneath our civilized glazing, we are all deviants, all alone, and all peculiar. This flies in the face of mass marketing, but I'm sticking with it. So loosen your spine, bury your television, and welcome to a Globe of Frogs...
Globe Of Frogs came out before I had a CD player, so I purchased it on cassette. I initially didn't like it, for reasons that are hard to explain now. It just seemed a bit to glossy in places. Anyway, I never picked up the album on CD, and probably hadn't heard the entire album in the last 15 years before today.
I know the four songs on the A&M Greatest Hits album ("Balloon Man", "Flesh #1", "Vibrating", "Chinese Bones") and the ones that he's played live over the years like "Sleeping With Your Devil Mask", but there were two or three songs that I flat out didn't remember when I played the album last night. Like the first song on side two ("Unsettled"). What a great tune! And I didn't remember it at all.
Globe Of Frogs (and the other A&M albums) show no signs of being reissued in the near future, and I couldn't even find any GoF-era videos on youtube. The closest thing I found was a cover of "Chinese Bones" by Suzanne Vega & the Grateful Dead at a rain forest benefit in September 1988.
Anyone who wonders how Suzanne Vega & the Grateful Dead would sound covering a Robyn Hitchcock song doesn't have to wonder anymore!
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
1987 was another "invisible" year for Robyn Hitchcock, when he didn't release any new material, but had a bunch of old material repackaged. In late-1986, Relativity reissued all of his pre-Fegmania! solo albums in the U.S. and issued another album of outtakes from the early 80s called Invisible Hitchcock.
According to Robyn's liner notes, this album (a play on the Soft Boys' Invisible Hits) assembled songs that "didn't fit in with what I was doing at the time but do fit in with each other now". Over the years, he's put together multiple collections of 1980s outtakes (Invisible Hitchcock, You & Oblivion, the recent While Thatcher Mauled Britain and A Bad Case Of History) with just a few overlapping songs, so he was apparently wickedly prolific during the 1980s, and released only a small percentage of all the songs he wrote and recorded.
As these things go, Invisible Hitchcock hangs together fairly well as an album. About half the songs are Black Snake outtakes (1980-81) and half are from the I Often Dream Of Trains era (1983-84), but most of them wouldn't fit on those albums, so it makes sense to try to assemble them into something cohesive.
Invisible Hitchcock is now long out of print, but I think it's possible to assemble an IH playlist from the I Wanna Go Backwards box set. Unfortunately, the last two volumes of the box aren't available on emusic and are listed as "album only" on amazon & iTunes, so it isn't possible to assemble without purchasing the entire box set.
Monday, March 9, 2009
Fegmania! sounds like Robyn Hitchcock with various backing musicians, while Element Of Light sounds like the work of a band called Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians. Andy and Morris sound more plugged in to Robyn's songs, and the keyboard player stays out of the way for the most part. Pat Collier's production also doesn't overwhelm the songs, which are some of the best of Robyn's career (the "Airscape", "Bass", "Never Stop Bleeding" trio always slays me).
Element of Light was the album that started Robyn's reign atop the U.S. college charts (back when they had "college charts") and this "floating hat" video of "Raymond Chandler Evening" even got some regular MTV airplay.
When I went through my Robyn Hitchcock records yesterday, I found a couple of 12-inch singles that I don't remember buying. One was "If You Were A Priest" b/w "Tell Me About Your Drugs"/"The Crawling"/"The Can Opener" (all bonus tracks on the EOL cd), and another is "Bells of Rhymney" b/w "I'm Only You", which may have been the first Egyptians release (c-1984, but sounds like the Fegmania! sessions). "Bells" (a Pete Seeger track) is credited to "trad. arr McGuinn" and sounds like a straight copy of the Byrds version. Now a bonus track on Fegmania!.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Fegmania! (or fegMANIA! as it's written on the cover) was the first Robyn Hitchcock album released in the U.S., and the first album for most of his American fans (including the fan writing this entry). It also marked the debut of his new band The Egyptians, with former Soft Boys Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe and keyboardist Roger Jackson. The Egyptians came about in early 1984 at a one-off benefit for London's Hope & Anchor, and stayed together for nearly a decade.
Fegmania! was my first Robyn Hitchcock album, and has many of his best songs, but parts of it sound a little.. dated.. when I listen to it now. It's got clean and shiny 80s production, with lots of bass and keyboards, and sounds like a Mr. Mister album with better songs. As I kick off Egyptians week, I'm wondering if this is going to be a recurring theme with these albums. This next batch of albums are ones that I listened to a lot when they came out, but haven't revisited in a long while.
A few months after Fegmania!, Robyn & the Egyptians put out a live album called Gotta Let This Hen Out! (enough with the exclamation points) that I've enjoyed getting reacquainted with the last few months after downloading it from emusic. From the same Whistle Test show as the "Brenda's Iron Sledge" performance, here are Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians doing "Heaven". Robyn's plaid sportcoat and polka dot shirt combo was pretty wild, even back in 1985.
Note that Katrina & the Waves (Kimberley Rew's band) also played on that show.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Of the twenty or so albums that Robyn Hitchcock has released in his career, I Often Dream Of Trains is probably the one I listen to the most. It's probably just below Underwater Moonlight in my Hitchcock pantheon, but I think those are the two masterpieces of his career.
I've already blogged about I Often Dream Of Trains, both the album and the concert, so I'll just link to those entries instead of rehashing them. I bought the album the same day that I bought Underwater Moonlight and Black Snake, but unlike those albums, it took me a few listens before I got it. Listening to it in chronological sequence after Groovy Decay, it sounds like an equal and opposite reaction to that album.
The CD reissues of this album are kind of confusing, and most of the bonus tracks just get in the way, especially on the Rhino version that puts them in the middle of the album. When Robyn performed IODOT, he put some of the bonus songs in their proper context (substituting "I Used To Say I Love You" and "My Favorite Buildings" for "Pretty Girl" and "Furry Green Atom Bowl"). The entire album has a narrative theme, much like Village Green Preservation Society, and could almost be made into a story. The idea might sound dodgy now, but I'm sure it sounds great when you're dead.
Friday, March 6, 2009
1983 was the year that the Soft Boys Invisible Hits compilation came out. This was the first Soft Boys record I ever bought, mistakenly thinking it was a greatest hits collection, but it's actually a odds and sods collection of non-album tracks.
One of the biggest mistakes I've ever made was not picking it up on CD, since it's now out of print, and I can't seem to locate my LO. I thought I had a complete Soft Boys collection on vinyl, and I've located A Can Of Bees, and Underwater Moonlight and even Live From the Portland Arms, but no Invisible Hits. It's probably just been mis-filed. Luckily, someone has posted the entire album to youtube.
The songs on Invisible Hits range from the prehistoric days of the Soft Boys ("Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole" is one of their first songs) through the Underwater Moonlight era and the lost single "He's A Reptile". All the songs were previously unreleased, but one song ("When I Was A Kid") was recorded later on Groovy Decay.
This collection (and its companion Live From The Portland Arms cassette) showcase the Soft Boys at their loopiest, with lots of genre exercises the owe more to the Bonzo Dog Band than the Beatles. "Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole" sounds like a cross between Captain Beefheart and Spike Jones, "Have A Heart, Betty" is psychedelic barbershop, "He's a Reptile" is either a girl group homage or a nod to Motorhead, and "Rock & Roll Toilet" is the Soft Boys' punk song -- they even swap instruments to make it sound "punkier".
Live At The Portland Arms, a live tape that was reissued on vinyl in the late 80s but still hasn't come out on CD, documents a 1978 Soft Boys' acoustic/acapella show at the Portland Arms in Cambridge. They play a few of their own songs plus an assortment of wacky covers (everything from "In The Mood" to "All Shook Up", nothing that less than two decades old at the time) that would have made for a great evening's entertainment for everyone who decided to drop "down the pub" that night.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Robyn Hitchcock's second album Groovy Decay is a classic example of Things Going Wrong. It has a few decent songs ("America", "52 Stations", "St. Petersberg"), but a bunch of listless ones, and the whole thing is dragged down by Steve Hillage's percussion and horn heavy production, which sounds more suitable for Kid Creole & the Coconuts than Robyn Hitchcock.
By the time I became a Robyn Hitchcock fan a few years later, he'd already disowned the album, and reissued an alternate-reality version called Groovy Decoy, which was re-sequenced with demo versions of a few of the songs. These versions were later combined into a consolidated CD called Gravy Deco, which Yep Roc put out in 2007 as a digital download only. Bad album! No hard copy for you!
I stayed away from this album for the longest time, then picked up a used copy of Groovy Decoy in the disposable audio cassette format. I knew two of the songs from Gotta Let This Hen Out!, but couldn't really get a groove on the rest of the songs. I never picked up the album on CD, but grabbed the digital download from emusic a while back, and it gave me a headache. Since Robyn doesn't like this album, some part of me wants to be contrarian and say that I like it, but I really don't. The "disco version" of "Nightride to Trinidad" is particularly onerous The words "disco version" should not be listed in the same area code as a Robyn Hitchcock record!
The one good thing about GD is that Robyn's frustration with its recording process was the impetus for I Often Dream Of Trains, earning it a small place in the Robyn Hitchcock circle of life. Otherwise, it's for RH completists and disco fans only.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Just a few months after the Soft Boys called it a day, Robyn Hitchcock released his debut solo album Black Snake Dîamond Röle (not sure what the deal is with the caret and umalut in the title). In many ways, the album is almost like a third Soft Boys album, since Robyn's former bandmates (Kimberley Rew, Morris Windsor, and Matthew Seligman) all back him up on various tracks, but on the whole, it sounds more like a Syd Barrett solo record than a Pink Floyd record, if you know what I mean.
I bought Black Snake the same day that I bought Underwater Moonlight, on the same March 1987 visit to B-Side Records in Madison. All of Robyn's post-Soft Boys/pre-Egyptians albums had just been reissued by Relativity at "mid-line" prices in the U.S., so they became cheaper and easier to find, which was instrumental in my RH fandom moving from the shallow end to the deep end.
When I bought BSDR, I knew a couple of songs from the Egyptians' live album Gotta Let This Hen Out! ("Acid Bird" and "Brenda's Iron Sledge"), and "Brenda" was probably my favorite Robyn Hitchcock song, so I was eager to hear a studio version. At first, I thought the album sounded kind of cheap and lo-fi, but after hearing the next album, I decided that lo-fi was probably better than sounding au courant circa-81. Thank heaven for small recording budgets!
Listening to the album nowadays, there are a bunch of hidden gems (especially on side two: "I Watch The Cars", "Out Of The Picture", and "Love") and only a couple of songs that I'm inclined to skip, "Do Policemen Sing?" and "The Lizard". It seems like many of my least favorite Robyn songs are ones with "The (Noun)" as titles ("The Lizard", "The Pigworker", "The Fly", "The Rain", etc..)
When Rhino reissued Black Snake Dîamond Röle on CD in the mid-90s, they replaced the original mixes of "The Man Who Invented Himself" and "Brenda's Iron Sledge" with different ones, because apparently the original mixes were "lost". I still vastly prefer the original saxophone version of "The Man Who Invented Himself" to the sax-free version on the Rhino and Yep Roc reissues, and suspect that Robyn "lost" the original in a bout of Let It Be..Naked! revisionism. The saxes on the song are neither ghastly nor mellow, and their excision smacks of saxophobia, if not downright saxism. Robyn Hitchcock is an anti-saxite!
Each CD reissue of Black Snake has slightly different bonus tracks, but the current Yep Roc issue omits one that should be there "Dancing On God's Thumb" (the b-side to "The Man Who Invented Himself" single). This ADS post by 2f's attempts to outline the differences between the bonus tracks on Rhino and Yep Roc, but I'm trying to keep them out of the discussion and centering on the original albums as they were originally issued. We didn't have any "bonus tracks" in the olden days -- our LPs had ten songs, with five songs on each side, and we liked it!
We also didn't have youtube in the olden days, but this performance of "Brenda's Iron Sledge" by Robyn & the Egyptians is pretty sweet.
Quite possibly the greatest couplet in the entire history of the pop lyric that wasn't penned by Ray Davies.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
The Soft Boys' progression from A Can Of Bees to Underwater Moonlight in one year is staggering if you listen to the albums back to back. Their first album sounds like a young band finding it's form, not sure whether they want to be the Beatles or Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. One year later on Underwater Moonlight, the Soft Boys sound like they'd become the Beatles and made their own version of Revolver, making jangly guitar pop for a new generation. It was the blueprint for R.E.M., the Replacements, and almost every other band that was in heavy rotation on college radio during the 1980s.
When I bought Underwater Moonlight at a record store in Madison, WI (in March 1987, on the day The Joshua Tree came out), it was like finding a missing puzzle piece in my musical aesthetic. I was in Madison for Spring Break, with a budget of just over $100 for the entire week, and ended up dropping $40 in import albums on my first day. I also bought a couple more early Robyn Hitchcock albums (Black Snake and I Often Dream Of Trains) and a reissue of Big Star's Radio City on the same visit, and didn't even end up buying the U2 record that I went to the store to pick up.
I didn't know at the time, but my copy of Underwater Moonlight was the Canadian version with a different sequence and one extra track (a cover of Syd Barrett's "Vegetable Man") from a bonus EP called Near The Soft Boys.
I'm trying to blog about these albums as they were originally released (without bonus tracks), but I can't imagine Underwater Moonlight without "Vegetable Man". A few years later, I got the Glass Fish CD issue with seven more bonus tracks, then I upgraded to Rhino's Underwater Moonlight.. And How It Got There, which added one more single "He's A Reptile", as well as a bonus "how it got there" disc of album rehearsals. This is still available for download on emusic, and is the version to get, even though the rehearsal tapes are less than essential.
The Soft Boys made it to the U.S. to promote Underwater Moonlight but their limited touring budget kept them from venturing beyond metro New York. Lack of money also prevented the label (Armageddon) from promoting the album, and the Soft Boys quietly broke up in early 1981. Twenty years later, they reunited for a proper American and European tour, followed by a new album in 2002.
When the Soft Boys reunited in 2001, Robyn started dedicating "I Wanna Destroy You" to the newly elected George W. Bush, so I can't hear that song without thinking of our former President. Eight years later, parts of Underwater Moonlight sound like a political statement from the dawn of Thatcherism and Reaganism. "I Wanna Destroy You" and "Positive Vibrations" ("there you go, killing for peace. Don't you know you'll never get peace anymore. Just get war") are some of the most political, and direct songs that Robyn Hitchcock has ever wrote.
In short, Underwater Moonlight rules. The End.
Update: Happy Birthday, Robyn!
Monday, March 2, 2009
For this month's Hitchcockapalooza, I was debating whether to explore his albums in alphabetical order (like I did the R.E.M. albums last March) or in chronological order (like I did with the Groovies last month). I decided to go with the latter plan. Twenty plus albums in thirty days, which seems a bit intimidating on day one!
Robyn Hitchcock started out in the mid-70s as the leader of the Soft Boys. They released an EP called Give It To The Soft Boys in 1977 and a single, "(I Want To Be An) Anglepoise Lamp", the next year, and finally a full-length LP called A Can Of Bees in early 1979.
A Can Of Bees reprised songs from the 1977 debut ep and both sides of the 1978 single, along with a batch of new RH originals and a cover of John Lennon's "Cold Turkey". The Soft Boys were older and more historically grounded than most of their "punk era" peers. Robyn later said "we wanted to be punks, but we couldn't unlearn our craft and pretend that we knew only one chord, and weren't interested in three-part harmonies, bridges, middle eights, and all the rest of it".
I didn't get A Can Of Bees until around 1989, when I picked it up at Leopold Records in Berkeley (at a hefty import price) to fill the last hole in my Robyn Hitchcock discography. Ryko reissued it on CD in the early 90s, but I never upgraded, so I still only have A Can Of Bees on vinyl, except for the four songs on the 1976-1981 compilation. It seems like it's a hard album to find, with used copies going for $40-60 on amazon, but "rare" doesn't necessarily mean "essential".
There are a couple of great songs ("Human Music" and "Leppo And the Jooves") and a few fun ones like "Anglepoise Lamp" and "Sandra's Having Her Brain Out", but it's very much of it's time. The early Soft Boys sound like they're constantly on the edge of breaking into a ten-minute jam, and weighed down by inferior material like "The Pigworker" and the instrumental that opens side two ("Do The Chisel").
Listening to the album, it's clear that the Soft Boys were going places, but they still hadn't completely gelled as a band. After A Can Of Bees, they did tighten up their sound, and ended up making one of the best albums ever. More on that later.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
I finally came up with someone that fits that profile. An artist who's released (by my count) twenty studio albums in the last thirty years. His first full length album came out in April 1979, and his most recent album came out two weeks ago. An average of one album every 1.33 years. And I own all of them in various formats: fifteen on compact disc, most of the early ones on vinyl and/or cassette, and the last few last few as virtual files on my hard disk.
My Hot Rox artist of the month for March is this guy.. Over the course of this month, I'm going to listen to his entire catalog.
Eighties hair .. boy howdy!