[9 October 2006]
I first discovered Robyn Hitchcock in the most ordinary way possible. In 1988, while attending college in a college town, I heard “Balloon Man” on college radio. Boring, I know. But my point of entry has continued, ever since, to guide my expectations about what his music should sound like. At that moment in time, the quixotic songwriter was in the midst of his stint as the leader of Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians, an alternative pop trio who made some of the best music of that nearly forgotten period of time between the death of new wave (circa 1984) and the officially recognized birth of alternative music (late ‘91, with Nirvana’s Nevermind, of course). If you had half a brain and craved classically catchy guitar-pop melodies, the Egyptians’ sound was a weird little oasis in an era increasingly dominated by pre-fab Top 40 pap. Aided by the tight playing and perfect harmonies of bassist/keyboardist Andy Metcalfe and drummer Morris Windsor, Hitchcock and his band delivered a great string of albums from 1985 to 1993. I focus on particular on this stage of Robyn’s career, because, in name and in sound, he and his new band come closer to evoking the Egyptians than has any other Hitchcock project over the last 10 years.
And now let’s meet the members of this new band, dubbed the Venus 3. On guitar is a man you all know and love, Peter Buck. He’s been hanging out with Robyn and contributing tasty chops for two decades now, so, despite his super-stud status as a member of R.E.M. (and, therefore, the progenitor of the college rock sound), his presence isn’t a big surprise. Nor is that of another close friend, Scott McCaughey, sitting in here as bass player, but certainly far better known as the man at the helm of both the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5. So far, so good. So what is Bill Reiflin doing behind the drum kit? Apparently, the pummeling beatmeister from Ministry has a fun-loving side, too, and is just as happy nowadays to tap his snare for songs about arachnids and neighborhoods in Seattle. I have my doubts that this collective will remain a true band, reassembling to record a follow-up Venus 3 record. But they will be touring together throughout the fall. And they certainly look like they’re having a great time in the insert photo, all bundled up and grinning before an eerily green faux-Stonehenge.
More important, the guys sound like they’re having a blast. And why not? With 10 hooky tunes lasting just over 40 minutes, Robyn Hitchcock hasn’t focused his pop laser beam this tightly since 1999’s excellent Jewels for Sophia, which had been the last disc from Hitch to get me really excited… [cue deep and echoing announcer voice] UNTIL NOW. Olé! Tarantula is of a type of Robyn Hitchcock album. Without trying to cook up some crazily stratified taxonomy, let’s just say that he mostly creates either rock band-centric pop albums (like this one) or more spare and slow-tempoed solo albums (1990’s fantastic Eye, for instance). Falling somewhere in between was his 2004 collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Spooked. Despite receiving good reviews, it never sunk in for me. I suppose I prefer Robyn at his extremes.
Olé! Tarantula‘s driving opener, “Adventure Rocket Ship”, announces the album’s genus (rock) and species (pop) right away. The tune’s a musical cousin to 1986’s “If You Were a Priest”, complete with harmony vocals from none other than ex-Egyptian Morris Windsor, who contributes backup singing to half the album’s songs. “Underground Sun”, however, looks back even further, recalling Robyn’s first band, the Soft Boys, by reviving that group’s sharp buzz, courtesy of its original guitarist Kimberley Rew. He also lends his fretwork to the simmering, sax-splashed “Museum of Sex” and the fuzzy rocker, “Authority Box”. That number features the typically cryptic Hitchcock line, “Pardon me, baby, I’m a trolleybus”, the image of which features prominently in the CD’s package, both as a black and white photo of a miniature trolley in the liner notes and on the disc itself. You know, he used to dream of trains (often!).
These days, Hitchcock’s mode of public transport has become less obviously Freudian, but his imagery remains as half-interpretably dreamlike as ever. From the title track comes this bizarre string of associations: “Furry black legs and a spicy goatee / If you see Geno, won’t you kiss him for me? / Olé! Tarantula.” And “Museum of Sex” offers these lines: “On this deck, I stand erect / Like an egg for you to swallow / Kiss me till your light goes out / Kiss me till there’s no tomorrow.” The straightforwardness of the last line is brilliant, because it retroactively grounds the surreal words that come before, infusing classic romance into the Dali-esque scene. Whereas Hitchcock was once the angry young man who penned “I Wanna Destroy You,” today he can exhibit Zen-like detachment and fond avuncularity. On “Belltown Ramble”, with its music box piano twinkling, he says: “You can walk a square / You can walk an oblong / Even just walk straight / You’ll still be standing there / Though you think you did the job wrong / You did it great.” Well, you’ve got a sweet mouth on you, Robyn.
Other highlights include “‘Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram)”, co-penned with XTC’s Andy Partridge. So, yeah, it’s a catchy tune. And man, that must’ve been, like, such a psychedelic writing session, man. A live staple for years now, “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs”, is a charming song, even with references to Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson. The closing number, “N.Y. Doll”, is a not-at-all veiled ode to Arthur Kane, the New York Dolls bassist who died of leukemia in 2004. “There’s always someone to be loved / Or to be forgotten.”
With Robyn Hitchcock, I have chosen the former. In this century, my obsession had settled into fondness. But this new disc has reinvigorated my ardor. The songs are strong and the musicians are both top-notch and in total sympathy with Robyn’s vibe. Also, Hitchcock’s singing sounds as good as it has in years. This disc’s appeal reaches beyond the established “fegmaniac” fanbase. If you like catchy guitar pop with imaginative lyrics, Olé! Tarantula deserves a spot on your shelves.