Thursday, October 5

St. Parallelogram

Robyn Hitchcock released his latest recording this week - Olé! Tarantula. As Hitchcock is sort of my one true obsession - I inevitably buy everything I can get my hands on (even buying an entirely slipshod bootleg compilation when I was on my honeymoon in Portugal, just for "The Ghost In You" and "Calvary Cross"), I was waiting for my excellent local record store to open on Tuesday. Hitchcock is an original; of course this means he rarely puts out a consistently excellent album, but among the dross there is always some melody or lyrical twist that carves a little notch in your brain, which snags a thought now and again and compels you to hear that song.

One of my problems with the path Hitchcock traveled in recent years has been the sublimation of his pop sensibilities. From the seventies with The Soft Boys through the Egyptians years to the nineties solo albums, he reveled in the Beatle-esque hook. But after his millennial stint with a reunited Soft Boys, he seemed to shut it down, releasing the soporific Luxor and the alt-country tinged Spooked (which has moments, but also real stinkers like "We're Gonna Live In The Trees"). Olé! Tarantula has reclaimed that past with a vengeance. But is it any good? The short answer is yes. The long answer is to bring back something I used to do - the real-time commentary, track by track.

"Adventure Rocket Ship" starts us off in harmony, minor-key build. Second guitarist is helping this track, allowing color to ply the spaces around the riff. Absolutely nonsensical lyrics, redeemed by the "You crash upon a star" harmonies. after two minutes, it approaches take-off, building, then - it ends.

The guitar figure (pardon, my terminology is ass, as is my understanding of 7ths
and Phrygian dominants etc.) that opens the next track "Underground Sun" is prototypical Hitchcock, a swirling Byrdsian loop. I swear I know this song - it is such a kissing cousin of earlier works (very Element of Light, without the eighties drums). Hey - that's old Egyptian Morris Windsor singing harmonies on these! No wonder it's familiar. Silly me!

It's cranking along. Oh no, saxophones! After Hitchcock slammed them after the Groovy Decay/Decoy debacle (Of course, he used them again shortly thereafter. Live and learn). "Museum of Sex" isn't new. I know this song from live recordings. Of course, the arrangement is different - I've never heard this outside of solo shows. Hand claps. I like hand claps. This sounds a great deal like the Jon Brion stuff from Jewels For Sophia. Clapping, saxophones, chu-chu-chung guitar. So far, no standouts. Solid.

Wonderful piano! "Belltown Ramble", a strange little travelogue - R.E.M., O.M.D. and Uzbek warlord Tamerlane. "pink rotating elephant/EXP" Seattle? Hitchcock has a great affinity for the area - plus the Minus 5 guys are Seattle-ites. Maybe Belltown is there. Hmm. A simple jangle-folk rock song, head bobber. This album seems such a reclamation of the range Hitchcock has rambled over the years. Tamerlane is back, sitting down for wine. There is a sense of resignation in amongst the whimsy. The past is still past, live with it.

The title track "Olé! Tarantula" is next. Sax and harmonica, small vocal choir - great riff! But why am I almost hearing Cracker? The space between Buck and Buck impersonator Johnny Hickman is small. I know this one as well from live sets. Check out - some great performances (a show at the Iron Horse springs to mind). Fun, silly sing along . An instant Hitchcock classic, spindly legs, eggs and all.

"(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs" starts softly, though with a definite build to it. "You were riding in your car in San Francisco/But you're never gonna ride that way again" Good to hear Hitchcock playing with names - Briggs, Clint, Squint, Mel. This is a late Egyptians track in feel - it would make sense on Respect. A cross between "Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)" and "Dark Green Energy". It could be from any of the A&M albums. I've heard this before - it has to have been kicking around for like 5 years! This arrangement is sweet. Lovely, like soft rain.

Hmm. This next song is reaching - back, back, back - trying to emulate "Autumn Is Your Last Chance" from I Often Dream of Trains - and it can't get there. "Red Locust Frenzy" - better production values, but that wasn't the point on Trains. Bad synthesizer at the end. Disappointing.

Jangle pop, Hitchcock style! "I could be gauche but it's only a scosh 'cause it's love" What is a scosh? Is it a word, or did I mishear badly? Doesn't matter - pretty straightforward pop like the much maligned Perspex Island. But he didn't have lines like "I'm just a crab on a verdigris slab" on that album. "'Cause It's Love (Saint Parallelogram)" - more reclamation, courtesy of some musical help from unrepentantly literate popster Andy Partridge. Wouldn't Metallica have been better if their album was St. Parallelogram?

Not sure on "The Authority Box" verses - can't quite get the reference. the chorus/bridge "I call your name" is vintage Robyn -floating harmonies, rising to the limit of his voice. The verses have a squelchy feedback that almost reminds me of Julian Cope. That is a good thing. Whoa - "Fuck me baby/I'm a trolley bus!" I can't remember Hitchcock ever swearing in a song! He used to tell a story about a granny, who when asked by her grandson "What are grannies made of?" (you know, like girls are sugar & spice, etc) and granny answered, "Fuck-ass Rock and Roll!" in a deep, rumbling Exorcist voice. Nice climactic song.

Slow jangle, mid-tempo waltz-like beat. "N.Y. Doll" - about the late, lamented Arthur Kane. First person narrative, like a letter. "I was the pulse of it all/but there's always poison/ to drink alone or to/ share with friends /one in a million /people hit you like a window pane/ sincerely I remain/ Arthur Kane" I don't know if Hitchcock new the New York Doll's bassist, but the elegy is strong, touching. Much like "I Saw Nick Drake" from the outtakes collection A Star For Bram, Hitchcock here is reminiscing, touching something deep within himself.

His lifelong obsession with death and loss, and the understanding of life defined by these certainties, is very prevalent on this album. Whether through associated imagery (decay, scavengers like crabs and spiders, time and it's passing) or more lyrically direct in "N.Y. Doll" and "Briggs", his ruminations have weight. You could probably make the argument that his penchant for circular guitar motifs is also tied into that cycle of life. The fact is, for nearly thirty years, he has probed this fecund ground for his singular pop nuggets. Olé! Tarantula is another fine document of the richness of that soil.


Jamie said...

Enjoyed/appreciated the over-all review, but I have to disagree with a couple of things. . . . "We're gonna live in the trees", referrenced briefly from the album "Spooked" annoyed the hell out of me the first few times I heard it, but then . . . after listening to it and accepting the voice of the song as coming from the perspective of a bird (?) I found the song very catchy and enjoyable with little Hitchcockian profundities like "you can't fly by degrees". On the other hand "Authority Box" from the album in question is ruined for me by the pointless "fuck me, I'm a trolley bus" conclusion. I think you're right - I can't remember Hitchock swearing on a song before and I think the disruption of expectation hear is too strong considering that there seems to be no purpose to it. I always appreciated the way he could elicite strong reactions from me without resorting to profanity (ie. in the Soft Boys days especially), so that this ends up being a disappointment. Besides I can't imagine a trolley bus being altogether that good a fuck.

Erik said...

I honestly haven't listened to "Spooked" in a fairly long time - I found it lacking the necessary pull to make me want to hear it. I'll give it another look - your comments on "We're Gonna Live In The Trees" make me think I should give it another shot.

The "Fuck me I'm a trolley bus" is such an initial shock that it does kind of derail the proceedings. But the song is such a great track! It is hard not to overlook the inessential and incongruous nature of it, but I like the song none the less.

Thanks for reading and caring enough to respond. It is appreciated.