Robyn Hitchcock does it all. While that might sound like some sort of tweener sitcom adventure, the truth is far more rewarding. Hitchcock, now in his 30th year of rock and roll beginning with his 1976 forming of the Soft Boys, is back with his umpteenth album, not to get too technical, an album which puts on exhibit nearly every side of the English singer / songwriter he’s shown over his entire career. The former leader of the Egyptians has done punk, folk, rock, quirky pop and everything in between. Olé! Tarantula finds Hitchcock running the gamut of all these styles, but ultimately having them all settle into one nice little niche that can only be summed up with the words ‘Robyn Hitchcock.’ After dabbling in bluegrass with Gillian Welch on Spooked, Hitchcock now finds himself embedded in rock, Seattle-style, with member of the Minus 5, appropriately dubbed the Venus 3.
Scott McCaughey, Bill Rieflin and Peter Buck aren’t the only ones lending their talents to this latest episode of “Robyn Hitchcock Presents…” You can also find contributions from the Presidents’ Chris Ballew, former Soft Boys Kimberly Rew and Morris Windsor, the Faces’ Ian McLagan and Harvey Danger’s Sean Nelson. Most are simply there to lend their vocal talents, but with that much indie firepower, they had enough people to take on the Mariners at Safeco in a pickup game. Hell, they even had Andy Partridge to pinch hit if necessary. Thankfully, Olé! Tarantula is a far sight better than the Mariners’ performance this year.
“Adventure Rocket Ship” and especially “Underground Sun” have a late era Beatles feel, complete with those aforementioned vocal chorus backups. “Museum of Sex” has a slinky Bowie sensibility thanks to guest Colin Izod’s saxophone (with Hitchcock even sounding a bit like the Thin White Duke when he lowers his voice and says, ‘let’s hear that riff again.’). Hitchcock is decidedly more upbeat however, particularly with lines like, “Music is the antidote to the world of pain and sorrow.” “Belltown Ramble” is named after the portion of downtown Seattle north of Pike Place Market where you can find Buck’s club, the Crocodile Café, which is name-checked in the song along with R.E.M., O.M.D. and Denny Way as well as Tamerlane, who, coincidentally or not, invaded Baghdad in 1401, massacring over 20,000 people. This is vintage Hitchcock, witty and playful in its tone and majority of lyrics, while having some kind of weighty undertone.
Back in 1984, Hitchcock claimed that he often dreamed of trains. Well, two decades later and he’s saying, “Fuck Me, I’m a trolley car.” Is Hitchcock obsessed or, as some are wont to say, is a cigar sometimes simply a cigar? Either way, the last three songs on the album really pack a wallop. The aforementioned Partridge co-writes “‘Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram),” another Fab Four inspired tune as only the two can co-create. “The Authority Box” features the above lines re: trolley cars and fornication. Finally, there’s the touching tribute to Arthur Kane, the late bass player for the New York Dolls, titled simply “N.Y. Doll.”
All in all, it’s one of Hitchcock’s finest efforts, and though many might be quick to credit the inclusion of the planetary trio, its success can be more easily attributed to vintage Hitchcock. There are no signature Buck traits, a la the mandolin line of “Losing My Religion,” or McCaughey alt-country tendencies, meaning that this album is exactly what is being billed, Robyn Hitchcock with a backing band, and frankly that’s more than alright with me. Back in college, while most I know were listening to the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, my friends Tom and Valerie were introducing me to Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock. I was lucky enough at that time to acquire a bootleg of R.E.M. playing an unannounced date at the Borderline in London as ‘Bingo Hand Job.’ They were joined onstage by both Bragg and Hitchcock, solidifying my respect for the duo of English singer / songwriters. Of course, R.E.M. outdistanced the popularity of both, but Hitchcock shows in fronting the Venus 3 that he is still a songwriting marvel and the king of my folk rock universe.
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