[19 November 2009]
Not too long ago, I reviewed the new Flight of the Conchords album, and among my complaints was the charge that some of the songs didn’t work without their accompanying visuals. Well, feel free to haul out your Emerson and find something about foolish consistency, because I’m about to say that Robyn Hitchcock’s concert DVD I Often Dream of Trains in New York would be a lot stronger without the whole “DVD” part. Takes all kinds, I guess.
Taken as an audio document alone, it’s a pretty good live album. Not a game-changer or short-list classic like Live at Leeds or Kicking Television, but worthwhile, especially to fans of Hitchcock’s work. I Often Dream of Trains in New York finds Hitchcock revisiting songs from 1984’s I Often Dream of Trains (along with several contemporaneous songs since released as bonus tracks), a mostly acoustic affair coming after years of neo-psychedelia, both as a solo act and with his old band, the Soft Boys.
The stripped-down presentation and lo-fi home recording were a huge part of the album’s intimate appeal, and don’t initially seem like they’d translate well to a live setting. Hitchcock counteracts this by bringing along a couple of other musicians to (barely) flesh out the arrangements, providing additional guitar, soprano saxophone, and backing vocals. These touches and extra colors add just enough variation to make for a compelling performance.
Many of the highlights are the same, chief among them the title track’s hypnotic melody, the haunting arpeggios of “Cathedral”, and the country-rock of “Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus”. “Uncorrected Personality Traits”, a weirdly hilarious a cappella lecture on neuroses, seems less out of place amid Hitchcock’s twisted stage banter (of which more shortly). It wouldn’t replace your copy of the original, to be sure, but makes a worthy companion piece.
At least, it would if all you had to do was listen to it. Unfortunately, Robyn Hitchcock doesn’t have what you’d call an electrifying stage presence. Once you’ve gotten a load of his polka dot shirt—which actually is pretty eye-catching—you’re left with an hour and change of one to four British people standing on a stage. Its seems a trifle unfair to criticize a good performance of quality material because its performers don’t leap around or traffic in spectacle, but the fact remains that this DVD is an inherently visual medium, and that aspect is seriously deficient here. There’s nothing to see.
Hitchcock’s intelligence and demented sense of humor, already apparent in his songs, are on display as he discusses what the record means to him 24 years later, or in bizarre onstage tangents about tomato decomposition and wires. In addition to the stage banter, there are a handful of interview segments placed between songs. It leaves one wondering how cool an hour of uninterrupted Hitchcock reminiscences might be. As it happens, there is a CD version of the concert, which ought to appeal to hardcore Hitchcock acolytes and fans of the original record. The DVD, however, is simply one element too many, and it winds up detracting from the whole experience.