Sunday, November 15, 2009

And Yet Still Even More Decade-ence

The countdown of my twenty-six favorite albums of the past 10 years continues.
21–26 are here.
16–20 are here.
11–15 are here.
6–10 are here.
4 and 5 are here.

3. Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3, Olé Tarantula, YepRoc, 2006

After about 30 years (his first recordings with The Soft Boys date from 1977, although he had been performing in various guises since the mid 1970s), Robyn Hitchcock has become something of an elder statesman, and is often name-checked by alternative bands old and new (The Decemberists are fans). The three Soft Boys albums released between 1978 and 1980—especially the classic Underwater Moonlight—were important touchstones for 1980s alternative rock (they influenced the likes of R.E.M. and The Replacements, the latter of whom wanted Hitchcock to produce Tim in 1985). His perhaps most fertile period was 1986–1990, when he had formed The Egyptians from several former Soft Boys, and recorded a string of college album chart toppers—Fegmania! (1986), Element of Light (1987), Globe of Frogs (1988—my favorite album of all time), and Queen Elvis (1989). A switch to a major record label resulted in having a slick commercial producer foisted on him, ensuring that anything that made his records distinctive was removed, resulting in the bland Perspex Island (1991). The Egyptians’ swan song Respect (1993) had some high points, but felt more contractual obligation than artistic statement. Hitchcock went into hiding, much as he had in the early 1980s. Back then, he reappeared in 1984 with the all-acoustic masterpiece I Often Dream of Trains, and this time, he reappeared in 1996 with the mostly acoustic and excellent Moss Elixir. A Jonathan Demme-directed concert film (Storefront Hitchcock) was filmed, but scuttled by Miramax, and languished, although it is an excellent document of a typical Hitchcock concert, with the songs introduced by funny, often very surreal stories and commentary.

Since then, Hitchcock has pretty much followed his muse wherever it may lead. A brace of fin de siècle albums (Jewels for Sophia and A Star for Bram, 1999 and 2000, respectively) had high points (“Mexican God,” “The Cheese Alarm,” “I Saw Nick Drake,” an electric version of “1974”) but suffered from its random writing and recording wherever he happened to be and with whomever he happened to be. The all-acoustic I Often Dream of Trains/Eye-like Luxor was self-released in 2003 as a 50th birthday present to himself. A year later he signed to YepRoc Records and released a roots-like but still excellent collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Spooked. During this same period he was constantly touring, doing guest appearances at others’ shows, and generally, it seems, enjoying himself.

He finally returned to a full-piece rock band in 2006 by forming the Venus 3, an alternative “supergroup” comprising old friends Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5), and Bill Rieflin (Ministry). Their first album was Olé Tarantula, probably the most satisfying Hitchcock album since Moss Elixir, and his best rock record since Queen Elvis. It has all the trademarks: chiming rent-a-Byrds guitars, Beatles-esque melodies, and his lyrics that mix the surreal with the poignant and affecting. (All reviews tend to label Hitchcock as “eccentric” but I disagree; I think he’s remarkably grounded and sane, and just has a very vivid imagination and expresses himself using creative and unusual imagery, usually involving insects, fish, marine invertebrates, vegetables, etc. If, for example, his wife’s heart is sweet as sugar, why shouldn’t he avoid the usual cliché and instead sing about an “ant corridor to your heart”?)

Olé Tarantula kicks off with what could very well be The Soft Boys covering “If You Were a Priest”: “Adventure Rocketship,” where he explains, “I’m coming for you someday/As faithful as a mummy/Discovered in a crater.” “Underground Sun” is a eulogy of sorts for a friend of Hitchcock’s who passed away. “You lie so lonely/Listening to the silence of the graves/You don’t belong there/You belong down south among the waves/Underground sun/I miss you.” Celebratory in style, it features beautiful harmonies from Chris Ballew (Presidents of the United States of America), Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger), and Morris Windsor (Soft Boys, Egyptians). Soft Boys guitarist Kimberley Rew also makes a cameo (here, and on “Museum of Sex” and “The Authority Box”). Speaking of “Museum of Sex,” don’t expect it to be too literal: “On this roof I play this riff/Play it till my hands are hollow/You can play to the tomatoes/You can play to the Apollo.” But then: “In the end I’ll be a skull/Through my eyes the eels will wallow/In the end I’ll be a warning/Time is not for us to follow.” Still: “Music is the antidote/To the world of pain and sorrow.” He’s got a point. It is a good riff, with some appropriately grunting saxophones.

“Belltown Ramble” is a bit of a lengthy, well, ramble. “And you wanna know what is/And also what is not/Don’t you, girl?/It’s an independent life/And you want to see your eyes/Reflected in the world.” Well, don’t we all? Shortly, though, “Then you find the Uzbek warlord/You collide with Tamerlane/His teeth are brown.” Then things get faintly apocalyptic:
Seven men are on their way
Seven sets of appetites
have got to be appeased today

Ignorance comes first
then comes Opportunism
Greed is third

Fundamental Faith
Rides in backwards with his eyes shut
listening for the Word

In bowls number five
He needs a bit of elbow room
His name is Haste

He fires off a slew of e-mails
And says, Put your hands together, boys
for six aka Waste

The boys all look around
They looked at number seven
Reclining in his chair

He’s got his headphones on
His head is full of paradise
He isn’t there
The title track is an ode to reproduction told, not surprisingly, in the context of spiders. As Hitchcock explained, “It’s all to do with how people feel about what brings them into
existence—how some people kind of recoil from it and some people are delighted by it, and some people are just shocked that they exist at all.” “Out in the trees/Old tarantula has got me humming/Out in the desert the cacti are home/Tarantulas cluster in their underground dome/Olé tarantula.” It sounds like everyone had a bit of a good time in studio while recording that one. And how can one resist singing along with “I feel like a three-legged chinchilla/Standing on a table so wide/I can’t see over the side.”

“(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs” is a long-time live favorite that finally turns up here. “A man’s gotta know his limitations, Briggs/Or he will just explode.”
It kinds of makes you want to watch the Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force. The chiming guitars are probably the most evocative of The Egyptians era. The tender love song on Olé Tarantula is of course titled “Red Locust Frenzy,” and, well, why not? “’Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram)” was written in collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge, of which more is supposedly to be coming out.

The album closes with another eulogy of sorts, “N.Y. Doll,” about Arthur Kane, member of the seminal punk band The New York Dolls, and inspired by the movie New York Doll about “Killer” Kane, who after the demise of the band had a religious epiphany, gave up the archetypal rock’n’roll lifestyle, and became a Mormon librarian. He died shortly after the movie came out.

Olé Tarantula is a wonderful record. Like an actual tarantula, it’s frightening and startling at first glance but is actually quite harmless and even quite charming in its own surreal way. I saw The Venus 3 in NYC on this tour and it was a great show. This year, the second Venus 3 album, Goodnight Oslo, came out and it’s not as good but is still worth a listen.

To be continued...

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