Robyn Hitchcock still quick with a whimsy

[13 November 2006]

By Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

British pop-rock singer-songwriterRobyn Hitchcock is receiving highpraise for his latest album, buthe says the critics proclaim eachof his releases his \

British pop-rock singer-songwriter
Robyn Hitchcock is receiving high
praise for his latest album, but
he says the critics proclaim each
of his releases his \“best in years.\”
(Tom Oldham/Allentown Morning Call/MCT)

More than one critic has called Robyn Hitchcock’s new disc, “Ole! Tarantula,” his best in years. Though such praise is obviously well-meaning, it carries a not-so-subtle sting for the 53-year-old British pop-rock singer-songwriter at whom it is directed.

“They always say that,” he says puckishly over the phone from Tuscon, Ariz. “They have said it about every record I’ve made since 19 ...” he pauses a second to think of the year, but settles for “Jesus, I don’t know.

“When people say that, it often means you’re taken for granted, as long you still play a reasonable hand,” he continues. “You get that `Best since “Blonde on Blonde”’ sort of thing, the way Dylan did for his new record, `Modern Times,’ which is not even one of his best albums, and certainly is not as good as `Blonde on Blonde.’ It’s like getting a lifetime achievement award.”

For the record, Hitchcock believes 2004’s “Spooked” “is the best record I’ve made in years.” (He’s right, although “Ole! Tarantula” stacks up pretty darn well.)

And lest you think Hitchcock presumptuous in his assessment of Dylan’s new disc, in 2002 he released a two-CD set of Dylan covers, “Robyn Sings,” in tribute to the artist who “magnetized” him to making music.

“For me, the voice that goes down deepest is still Bob Dylan,” Hitchcock says. “(‘Modern Times’) is a very emotional record, from an emotional performer who cuts down deeper than most. ... He’s a global organism that originated in Minnesota.”

Hitchcock has been writing witty, sometimes surreal, hook-filled story songs in the tradition of such iconoclasts as Syd Barrett (“one of the true greats”), John Lennon and XTC’s Andy Partridge since the late 1970s, first as a member of the psychedelic post-punk band The Soft Boys, then as leader of The Egyptians and most recently as a solo artist.

On “Ole! Tarantula” Hitchcock works with three longtime friends, guitarist Peter Buck (R.E.M.), and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5) and drummer Bill Rieflin (formerly of Ministry), collectively known as The Venus 3.

“We had been talking about (recording together) for ages,” says Hitchcock. “Peter and I recorded back in the Egyptians days, and Scott, Peter and I played on `Jewels for Sophia’ in 1999. Since then, we were just waiting, hoping that we were going to be at some point available all at once.”

That opportunity came in 2005. “R.E.M. decided on an extended break that summer, and I was gonna be passing through Seattle, because Michele, my wife, who is an artist, was having an exhibition there,” recalls Hitchcock, who recorded eight songs in three days with Buck and McCaughey.

“That looked good, so I said, `Who wants to come over to dark, wet, dodgy Britain in January?’ and they all put up their hands and said, `Yes, please.’ We later cut rest of the record in Seattle.”

In typical Hitchcock fashion, “Ole! Tarantula” is full of whimsy, especially the easygoing “Belltown Ramble.” A musical kinetoscope, it is a flowing series of word pictures where Hitchcock’s characters frequent Seattle landmarks and tourist attractions - a hotel, a bar, a hipster art gallery, rotating neon pink elephant signs for a car wash - and bump into the 13th century Uzbeck warlord Tamerlane (“his teeth are brown”) and the seven appetites of the Apocalypse.

Then there’s the supremely catchy “Museum of Sex,” with its “Lady Madonna”-like saxes and the promise, “Music is the antidote to the world of pain and sorrow”; “Cause It’s Love,” a jaunty, tongue-in-cheek collaboration with Partridge celebrating that seemingly happiest of emotions, and thumping “Adventure Rocket Ship,” which, says Hitchcock, “is basically about a hungry ghost. ... Japanese friends of mine tell me there’s a hungry ghost in Buddhism, a soul in limbo, an unresolved soul, trying to get across.”

But deep emotions also lurk beneath the cheery surfaces. The genial-sounding “Underground Sun,” for example, is about a friend of Hitchcock’s who died recently. “She was a very lively person with a twinkle in her eye and a twinkle in her soul, and had been ill for a very long time,” he says. “I put my guitar into an odd tuning and it gave me that slightly Stonesy riff and I found myself singing this song, which became an upbeat elegy.”

On a pensive note, there’s the tender meditation about fame “N.Y. Doll,” about the late New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, who died of leukemia in 2004, shortly after a reunion of the fabled 1970s glam-punk band.

The song was inspired by the film “New York Doll,” which looks at Kane’s life after rock `n’ roll, “his fall from the heights, the sleazy heights,” as Hitchcock puts it. “He ended up a Mormon librarian in L.A., but he always wanted to get back. And then, after the reunion, he dies, like a salmon after swimming thousands of miles to spawn. ...

“I didn’t really know anything about (Kane) before writing the song,” he adds. “But the film really struck me. As a musician, certain feelings and signals are familiar to you, that are not too hard to identify with.”

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