(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Recording review - Robyn Hitchcock, Love From London (2013)

Surrealistic pop and unforced eccentricity

Robyn Hitchcock is like a lost uncle who wanders by every now and then on a cometary path. As uncles go, he’s a little dotty, but that’s part of his charm. Even turning 60, he has a childlike wonder that resonates. Sometimes, it seems like he’s starting one of the same old stories from an earlier visit, but they always drift sideways and turn out to be more interesting than expected. After all these years, his eccentricity hasn’t worn thin. His latest release, Love From London proves both familiar and unexpected, with a heady mix of surrealistic pop and unaffected psychedelia. While any of these songs could fit on his earlier albums, his lyrical turns are still full of powerful imagery and his perspective is always fresh. On “Be Still”, he captures a static moment of observation and spins it out into full reverie: “What is swimming through her mind as she sits alone?/ As beautiful as silence and as quiet as a stone.” The pop simplicity and steady bowing on the strings frame the frozen tableau as each detail crystallizes into place. “Her eyes are a dark as berries and her skin is charcoal brown/ She gazes to the future, out to where the sun goes down.

This combination of honed lyrics and intriguing music has been Hitchcock’s stock in trade for decades since he started fronting his psychedelically-slanted punk band The Soft Boys in the mid-‘70s. After the band fell apart in 1981, he slid into a steady solo career that wafted through MTV popularity and eventually picked up occasional partnerships with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows. Like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and 13th Floor Elevators’ Roky Erickson, his natural quirkiness gave his music an off-kilter edge and an outsider appeal. But grounded in a way that Barrett and Erickson never were, his musical output has been much more consistent. Over the years, his catalog has evolved into a sweet and sour mix of tunes that meld whimsical non sequiturs, off-beat subjects and pop aesthetics. While his songs are instantly recognizable, they have an artisanal quality that renders each one distinct.

The tracks on Love From London are little musical islands, each with a self-contained eco-system of pacing and mood. Heartbeat percussion drives the pensive melancholy of “Harry’s Song”. Despair builds as the piano repetition erodes any sense of well-being. On another corner of the archipelago, “Fix You” revives Beatlesque psychedelia with shades of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” backed with motorik Krautrock drumming. The elliptical social commentary demands to know, “Now that you’re broke/ Who’s gonna fix you?/ Fix you up?” But the most disorienting corner of his map is found in the innocently named “I Love You”. Insistently trippy, the groove circles and reverberates, creating an inescapable mental cage. If this were the indoctrination song for a radical cult, no amount of deprogramming would obliterate the trance-like echoes. The first verse warns of assimilation as he gleefully sings, “Tendrils grow between us/ Tendrils you can’t see/ I’m dissolving into you/ You’re growing into me,” which casts the droning mantra of the title in an ominous light. The robotic bass line and descending scratch of violin intensify the uneasy feeling, but he somehow makes paranoid surrender sound appealing.

As Hitchcock regales us with tales from this foreign land, it’s nice to relax into the rhythm of his songs. Quaintly quirky but unforced, Love From London flows like a dream. Like the rest of his oeuvre, it serves as another set of his “paintings you can listen to."

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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