These reissues of two late '90s Robyn Hitchcock albums find the surrealist singer-songwriter in prime form.
The 1990s were a strange decade for Robyn Hitchcock. I know, sure, it's Robyn Hitchcock -- a patina of oddness covers everything he does. But I'm talking about career trajectory. That stretch of ten years began with the release of a fantastic solo album, Eye, recorded at the peak of his college rock fame. Next up, his band, Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians, released their final two albums, 1991's Perspex Island and 1993's Respect. Although both were solid records, neither quite lived up to the standard the Egyptians set in the '80s. It would be three years until the usually prolific Hitchcock would release his next album, 1996's good (but, again, not great) Moss Elixir. By this time, it was beginning to seem that Robyn was content to be playing to his existing fanbase.
Enter Jonathan Demme, Academy Award-winning director of Silence of the Lambs and, more relevant to the topic at hand, the man who captured Talking Heads at their peak with 1984's amazing Stop Making Sense. The meeting of Demme and Hitchcock wouldn't lead to another concert film masterpiece, but it did result in the fun and cozy Storefront Hitchcock (which was recorded in -- you guessed it -- an empty storefront). The soundtrack to that film is one of two late '90s CDs being reissued by new label Noble Rot, who are in some way affiliated with Collectors' Choice, Rhino, and Warner Bros.
Originally released in 1998, this live set captures well the essence of later era Robyn on stage. He performs mostly solo (and mostly acoustic), aided here and there by violinist Deni Bonet (who also lent her sumptuous bowing to Moss Elixir) and Tim Keegan, leader of Homer and the Departure Lounge. Of the 21 tracks on Storefront, a mere dozen are actual songs. These include several tracks not found on other major releases, such as the string odd rememberances from "1974", the kind of dippy "Let's Go Thundering", the lightly bouncing "I Something You", and the creeping folk-blues of "Where Do You Go When You Die?". Robyn revives some golden oldies, too. From 1985's Fegmania!, we're treated to "I'm Only You"; from Queen Elvis, he plugs in and rattles the dust off of "Freeze"; Respect loans us the instant classic "The Yip! Song". He even turns in a very nice cover of Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary".
The songs are well selected and nicely performed, but, let's face it, a huge component of the live Robyn Hitchcock experience is what comes between the songs. Offering more than just banter on Storefront's remaining tracks, Robyn delivers works of fantastical flash fiction -- nuggets of magical realism that leave the mind reeling. In a bit that begins with minotaurs, you soon find yourself wrapped in duct tape and falling down from the skies toward downtown London. Only, your velocity gradually decreases as you descend. By the time you've almost touched down, your presence has been interpreted as a terrorist threat, causing a ripple of panic throughout the land. Then, whoosh!, and we're into another strummy pop ditty. Such is the delightfully disorienting juxtapositioning one encounters at a Robyn Hitchcock show. Storefront is an excellent showcase for this weird and wonderful phenomenon.
The following year, 1999, Robyn released Jewels for Sophia, his studio LP follow-up to Moss Elixir. Aided here and there by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and former Soft Boys guitarist Kimberley Rew, the record is Robyn's most raw and rockin' since the great Egyptians album of '86, Element of Light. Tim Keegan joined in once more, and Jon Brion produced the disc. This all-star cast of Robyn's regular pals kept the sessions loose, resulting in a terrific set of tunes from start to finish.
Upbeat pop numbers like "The Cheese Alarm" and "Viva! Sea-Tac" will leap into your brain and never leave. (It's been eight years now, and I still can't look at a picture of the Seattle skyline without happily singing "The Space Needle points toward the sky / And the Space Needle's such a nice guy".) Jewels for Sophia sports some of Robyn's loveliest ballads, too: "I Feel Beautiful", "You've Got a Sweet Mouth on You, Baby", and the bittersweet "No, I Don't Remember Guildford" (which debuted live on Storefront Hitchcock). These reflective moments are balanced by rockers like "Elizabeth Jade" and "NASA Clapping".
For fans of 1980s Robyn Hitchcock, Jewels for Sophia often recalls the Soft Boys and early Egyptians; it is part of a sonic lineage that extends from Underwater Moonlight through to 2006's Olé! Tarantula. If, however, you prefer your Hitchcock with a softer edge, then Storefront makes for an excellent complement to 1984's I Often Dream of Trains, 1990's Eye, and 2004's mighty fine collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Spooked. Either way, you can't lose. Get both discs, and you'll lose even less!