Mar 232010

In a recent thread someone wondered aloud if there was anyone in rock who has actually gotten better with age. Mr. Moderator offered up Nick Lowe, who I think falls short but A for effort. I can’t find which one of you said it but for you I offer up Robyn Hitchcock.

A bit of my history with The Man Who Invented Himself. I got turned onto the Soft Boys when a DJ at my college station spun “Millstream Pigworker” from Can of Bees. Couldn’t find the album version on YouTube but this is close.

To date this is my favorite Soft Boys album. It’s gotta be the toughest thing he’s ever put out. But when Kimberly Rew shines up his guitar it has a trippy sparkle. I read somewhere that The Soft Boys’ goal was to be a psychedelic punk band. If so then this album comes pretty close.

Then came Underwater Moonlight. I missed the tough edge at the time but fell in love with the grooves. I even did a film using “You’ll Have To Go Sideways” as the soundtrack. Wish I had it digitized for YouTube so I didn’t have to run with this:

It was foreshadowing that this is my favorite track on the album.

What I missed even more was the sound of a band, man. Bees sounded like a band getting its ya-yas out but Moonlight felt much more controlled. Much more of a studio effort. Which isn’t a bad thing, just missed it.

I pretty much stuck with Robyn solidly thru Element of Light. But I was starting to get wary of the whole Syd Barrett thing. So many of his lyrics started feeling like the guy at the party who pretended he took a drag and then walked around telling people how cool the colors are. Alas I felt I was outgrowing Robyn Hitchcock.

I hold a special place for Syd Barrett and being influenced by is one thing. This, though, is something that wears thin fast:

In an interview with Q Magazine, Hitchcock said:

I did let it get out of hand. Syd went beyond being an influence to points where there’d be a takeover. It was quite sinister. It was as if at certain times when I was singing or writing it was no longer me but this other guy. There were times when I thought ‘My God, this guy is roosting in my head.’ I think I’ve exorcised that now.

Lost my taste for all things Robyn. I didn’t even try again until the recent Soft Boys reunion album, Nextdoorland. I should probably revisit that given recent revelations but…meh.

Within the past two year though I started revisiting Robyn. And it was actually a Syd Barrett thing that got me to open that door again. Was it a Syd Barrett tribute on VH1 or something? Saw this clip and realized that this man, 10 years my senior, fully understands the bottomless beauty of this song.

During this time I also discovered that Robyn Rowan Hitchcock is the guy’s real name. And all this time I gave him mental shit for making it up and spelling Robyn with a “y” a la Syd. Sorry, Robyn. Also found out that his dad, Raymond, was a cartoonist, painter, and sci-fi writer. He wrote book called Percy about a man who gets the first penis transplant. The book was made into a film. The flim’s soundtrack was written by Ray Davies and performed by…The Kinks.

I started to see where Robyn was coming from and I forgave him. I know he’s grateful. Don’t ask how I know. I just know. Don’t ask him though. He’ll deny it just to fuck with me. I began to enjoy his catalog all over again and even though I’d sometimes wince-

Opening Janet serious find
Head full of granite ever so kind
Send for the orderly too late to come
Drunk and disorderly under your thumb
Tissues from Venice wipe on a dial
Crawling a lettuce ever so vile

My toes would keepa tappin’.

So I had mustered enough courage to sample Robyn Hitchcock and The Venus 3‘s first album, Olé! Tarantula! (2006) I stumbled upon it in eMusic. The Venus 3 consists of Peter Buck (I know he’s a douche but I like him most when he’s not hanging out with an irritating dickhead. That guy’d also drive me to taking a dump on an American Airlines’ food service cart.) The Young Fresh Fellows‘ Scott McCaughy. Kimberly Rew and Morris Windsor from The Soft Boys. Small Face’s keyboardist Ian McLagan, and more.

Well whaddya know, it sounds like a freakin’ band man. And the stilted weird-o lyrics are pretty much gone and when they come up they feel more natural. The man is like 55 years old and he lets his frail voice hang out. Feels real. Feels right.

One of my favorites from Olé! Tarantula!
The Venus 3, “Underground Sun”

This is about as weird as it gets and it just feels like good fun. No spiders laying eggs in my brain or shit.

Then Goodnight Oslo came out and the band sounded really together man. With the exception of one awkward rhyme I really dig this:

Can you spot the offending rhyme?

I actually like Oslo more than Tarantula but highly recommend both.

I guess what I’m saying is that with age Robyn has chilled, gotten more real, surrounded himself with guys who know what they’re doing and he let’s them do it. The songs are strong and that combined with the sound of a man with nothing to prove makes for what I feel are his best albums.

But let the music persuade you. These two albums are available on eMusic and I just downloaded his new one from his site (which is pretty nifty, if unfinished):

It’s got like Nick Lowe and John Paul Jones on it and shit.

Robyn Hitchock – better with age. Feel free to agree.

Oh yeah- Saturday Groovers- Robyn Hitchcock “Eno’s got some mental floss”. LMS


  30 Responses to “Better With Age: Robyn Hitchcock

  1. Flaming Lips.
    J. Spaceman
    Tom Waits
    Paul Stanley’s between song banter.

    All getting better with age.

  2. misterioso

    Hey sammymaudlin, good work and glad to see some consideration of Robyn. I enjoy his full body of work, Soft Boys on down, but I felt actually that around the time of “Storefront Hitchcock,” that is to say the Moss Elixir and Jewels for Sophia albums (and the accompanying Mossy Liquor and Star for Bram) he reached a real peak. Solid records, good production (unlike several that had come before which suffered in the production department in one way or another). I have not quite warmed up to the stuff that has come out since–though I suspect I will someday. It’s good stuff, but it has not fully connected with me.

    The Robyn albums that I find myself listening to most are, in no special order: Eye, I Often Dream of Trains, Underwater Moonlight (Soft Boys), Jewels for Sophia, and Moss Elixir. At one time I was crazy about Element of Light, which is still very good but doesn’t hold together the way those others do for me. I also enjoy the odds and sods collections, Invisible Hitchcock, You and Oblivion, and those included in the more recent box sets.

  3. sammymaudlin

    Beck is an interesting consideration for better with age. I’m not sure I see a progression (though I don’t really see one with Robyn either) but I must say that I think Beck’s last album, Modern Guilt, is my favorite. Has he been around long enough to be considered “aged” though?

    shawn- how are the other post Midnight Vultures releases? That’s when I stopped.

    In the case of Robyn I feel that it is age itself that has made him better. As I age, I feel more and more comfortable with who I am and feel I have less and less to prove. Which isn’t laziness or lack of ambition rather just a sense of being who I am, take or leave it. And it’s that honest connection that I feel with these Venus 3 releases.

  4. BigSteve

    I always liked the way Hitchcock’s music sounded more than anything, and the sound of his voice and words is pleasurable to me. I never thought too much about the icky stuff in his lyrics. It’s mostly rot (literally … his major lyrical focus is death).

    I’ve very partial to the album he made with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Spooked, right before he started in with the Venus 3. But I’ve pretty much liked all of his stuff, the main exception being I Often Dream of Trains and Eye, which many Hitchcockians seem to favor. I don’t hate them, but they’re not my favorites.

    I don’t disagree with sammy’s thesis, though I think Hitch is more consistent than people give him credit for. I do think he’s one of those artists, and Nick Lowe is another, who became more himself as he got older.

  5. his first studio album came out 17 years ago, so yes, i think that’s long enough to chart growth. my fave is Mutations, but the 4 he’s put out since then have garnered the most critical acclaim.

  6. pudman13

    I beg to differ. I think Hitchcock has made consistently good albums but not great ones, and has never come close to the spark and quality of UNDERWATER MOONLIGHT as a solo artist.

    I think there are artists whose best work happens after they’ve seasoned a bit, but I can’t think of anyone whose very best run of albums wasn’t within the first, say, 5-10 years of their recording career…unless we want to talk about jazz musicians maybe. This probably points out just how limited an art form rock is?

  7. sammymaudlin

    I’m not gonna come down on Underwater Moonlight. It’s a great album. A classic that I still enjoy it from time to time but it’s not an emotional album for lack of a better term. That is, it doesn’t connect with me on a human emotional level and that’s fine. I’ve got tons of music that I enjoy that doesn’t do that. Most in fact: Fountains of Wayne, The Monkees, Cheap Trick, Devo, ELO, Bowie, Sloan, Eno…

    I don’t require that deeply emotional response when I listen to music but when great music has it, it’s a more fulfilling experience: Lennon, Dylan, The Clash, Bob Marley, X… These folks make music that touches me on deeply human level. And these Venus 3 albums do as well.

  8. BigSteve

    I read the book African rhythm and African sensibility: aesthetics and social action in African musical idioms by John Miller Chernoff recently. This is the book that Byrne and Eno read that is supposed to have influenced their work on Remain in Light.

    One of my takeaways from that book was the idea that all of the ethnic groups Chernoff dealt with took it as a given that a musician/drummer only got better after years of playing. I think they would have thought the concept of a musician doing his best work in his 20s and the inevitability of decline completely ludicrous.

  9. Mr. Moderator

    Is anyone else unable to view all but the first YouTube video? I keep getting a message telling me an “error has occurred.”

    This is a cool piece, sammy. I wish I could better reconsider the musical evidence.

  10. pudman13

    Sammy, your point is well taken, and it makes me ask town hallers a question: How often do you truly love a mature work with a significant emotional base if it doesn’t also have an equally powerful musical spark? I can think of lots of songwriters whose subject matter and lyrical intelligence has improved as they aged, but because the music that accompianied most of these mature works was either subdued to such an extent that it didn’t stand out, or simply wasn’t as inspired as the subject matter of the songs, or was good but not as experimental or varied as the same artists at their best, I find myself continuing to prefer the fresher, rawer younger albums.

    That said, we all have a few albums that are personal favorites because they speak to us directly, but are those better albums, or are they just indicators of who we are? To be truly great, shouldn’t something have both the emotional base and the musical spark?

    Christgau can be a real annoyance sometimes, be he nailed it with his review of my own ultimate personal favorite singer-songwriter record, Elliott Murphy’s AQUASHOW, when he mentioned some of the lyrical qualities and then said something like “none of which you need to notice until you’ve enjoyed the music a dozen times.”

  11. Mr. Moderator

    I can be fine with strong, subdued music if it accompanies more developed points of view by an artist whose early, energetic works first turned me on. I’ll take a subdued Nick Lowe album these days over some 14th iteration of “I Knew the Bride.” I don’t think a “spark” is the only delivery method of the “heat” that we desire. Some albums give off heat with a slow burn or even a loving hug.

  12. sammymaudlin

    Pud- That’s precisely the downfall of aging musicians in my experience. They often mature and grow but it’s like they shot their musical wad in their youth. That’s what’s remarkable to me about this recent Hitchcock stuff. He’s still got the songwriting chops.

    If the music isn’t there, then I have a tough time absorbing it without effort. An extreme example is when I saw Lou Reed years ago read his lyrics in a poetry like setting. Granted there was lots to dislike about this (his squeaky leather jacket) but man it was boring as all hell. Even though he was reading lyrics that in context have moved me.

  13. BigSteve

    Doesn’t ‘lacking a musical spark’ or ‘shot his musical wad’ just mean ‘no longer satisfies my constant craving for new sounds’? We wouldn’t really have wanted Robyn to go grunge would we? Should Nick Lowe make a minimal techno album?

    On the other hand aging songwriters can explore new (mature?) lyrical territory without seeming faddish. Why is it that juggling the same set of musical influences in new ways seems tired to us? Especially if that’s all a veteran musician can do without embarrassing himself.

  14. Tom Petty; perhaps the most consistent man in rock history.

  15. pudman13

    >Doesn’t ‘lacking a musical spark’ >or ‘shot his musical wad’ just >mean ‘no longer satisfies my constant >craving for new sounds’?

    No, not at all. In fact, the last thing I want to see is some musician I admire trying to ape current trends instead of doing what they do best.

    I think it means that they settle into a groove where they do what they do well, but *not* necessarily better than that. In other words, what they do best but not the best they can do with it. You can be surprising and inspiring without changing your style. Dylan did it with LOVE & THEFT, for example. Heck, Dylan did it with BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. Growing old doesn’t mean you don’t need hooks anymore. (This criticism isn’t levelled at Hitchcock, necessarily.)

  16. Mr. Moderator

    pudman13, if what you’re saying is, “If it ain’t got that swing then it don’t mean a thing,” then I agree with you. What I *think* some of us are saying is that an artist can swing in new ways. I think what you’re saying about Dylan is an example of the same thing, right? I always say, If the music doesn’t move me I don’t care of the lyrics give eyesight to the blind! To paraphrase Allen Iverson, “We’re talking about music!”

  17. misterioso

    Dylan–as he is for so many other things–is the gold standard here. Granted it was after a long period of inconsistency and occasional lapses into terribleness, but since the 90s he has produced remarkable (Love and Theft, Time Out of Mind), very fine (the two solo “folk” albums, Modern Times), and solidly workmanlike (Together Through Life) records well into his 60s.

    It is insane to expect them to be or to have the same impact as Highway 61 or Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks. But they stand as a model of what a mature artist can achieve when he finally lets go of chasing popularity and current trends.

    I tend to think Hitchcock has done likewise, albeit attaining lesser levels of greatness. (Not meant as a knock.) Same for Lowe.

  18. Mr. Moderator

    I need to revisit some of those Dylan albums from the last 10 or so years. I remember thinking they weren’t terrible…considering the fact that I find his voice terrible these days! I’m now thinking about what pudman13 was saying. I find almost nothing remotely musical about Dylan’s voice anymore.

  19. BigSteve

    pudman says: “You can be surprising and inspiring without changing your style.”

    Actually you can’t be surprising, I don’t think, if you keep the same style. That’s what I’m saying, we expect to be constantly surprised. And I don’t think Dylan is a good measuring stick, because no one else is in his class.

    Paul Simon is the only major artist I can think of who successfully changed styles in his maturity. Graceland came out when he was 45, and since then he’s been circling around the same set of influences. He’s unlikely to surprise me again, but it’s my fault if I think less of him for that reason, not his.

  20. I don’t think Beck’s gotten better with age, though I still really like him. Say what you will, Loser as an opening shot would be hard to top. Mutations is my favorite, but that was pretty early on the time line. Of the later records, I’d say Guero is by far the best. It has probably a half dozen songs better than anything on The Information or Modern Guilt.

  21. misterioso

    Mod, not only are those Dylan albums not terrible, they substantially enrich his body of work. I mean Time Out of Mind and Love & Theft, primarily, but importantly also a number of related recordings included in the last Bootleg Series issue, Tell Tale Signs. Modern Times and Together Through Life are very good but they do not add much to the other recordings.

    His singing in concert these days is terribly rough. The performance at the White House, in my opinion, showed what he needs to to: quiet down the music and stop trying to shout over it. He can still be very effective.

    But his singing on those recordings is tremendous. Listen, especially, to some of the songs on Tell Tale Signs: the outtakes from Time Out of Mind “Mississippi,” “Red River Shore,” “Marching to the City,” and the tremendous “Tell Old Bill” from around the time of Love and Theft.

  22. Mr. Moderator

    misterioso, I respect your opinions greatly and often find myself in agreement with you – or at least interested in what you have to say. This is yet one more time when I feel this way. I’m going to buy some of those albums I’ve never warmed up to over the last 10 years and report back to you – and to the Hall at large.

    The one Dylan song from this stretch I do recall liking a lot is the one that plays during the end of the movie Wonder Boys.

  23. misterioso

    Good man, Mod. If you end up loving the stuff, remember to give me full credit. On the other hand, if you hate it: Totally not my fault.

    “Things Have Changed” from Wonder Boys is what you have in mind.

    Not wanting to completely betray my Dylan-windbag nature (a bit too late, I suppose), let me leave it at this: the best of the best from Tell Tale Signs, and a song that is certainly as good as anything released on Time Out of Mind, is “Red River Shore,” a beautiful song as great as any classic Dylan “story song.”

    Anyway, I kills me every time. Hope you like it. Try to listen without looking at the dumb-ass picture of him with a Cadillac Escalade or whatever it is.

  24. As I’ve said before, my favorite latter-day Dylan album is Love and Theft, primarily because I think the mix of Dylan’s ravaged voice and the kick-ass roadhouse band really works. Time Out of Mind also has a great sound and aesthetic, but is hit-and-miss song-wise. Tell-Tale Signs has some great stuff. After that, eh…

  25. Mr. Moderator

    Sadly I did not find Tell-Tale Signs on eMusic, but I just downloaded 7 or 8 songs from the other two albums you’ve recommended. I’m listening to the song “Mississippi” as I type this. It’s got a nice, jaunty beat.

    Now “Bye and Bye” is playing. This song is pretty good too, but it gets into that Olde Tyme shuffle beat that I think I most associate with my memory of borrowing a friend’s copy of Modern Times for a couple of days. That shufflin’ stuff, mixed with his beat-to-hell voice, is challenging for me. This song, however, is well played.

    The songs I downloaded from Time Out of Mind are cooler than I remembered. “Not Dark Yet” gets me from the opening measures, reminding me of any number of his best ’70s songs. It must be the memory of Modern Times and the bad run of albums in the ’80s and ’90s that I still hold against him.

    All that said, I also downloaded his versions of two often-covered songs I love, “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and “If You Gotta Go, Go Now.” I miss the ease with which he used to deliver his material. I guess he’s struggling with the musical equivalent we all face at some time, of waking up with more aches than we ever did in our 20s and 30s.

  26. misterioso

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the coolest thing on Love and Theft (which is, I think, full of cool things), is the way he sings the opening line of “Cry a While”: “Well I had to go down and see a guy named Mr. Goldsmith / Nasty dirty double-crossing back-stabbing phony I didn’t have to want to have to deal with.” Surely, the double “have to” is a slip, adding extra syllables to a line already much too long, yet he pulls it off with wit and skill. Yeah, love that.

  27. pudman13

    Paul Simon is a good call (and I say this despite not especially liking GRACELAND), because he did something nobody else has really done–broke new ground “late” in his career as an innovator. He didn’t adapt to any new trend; he initiated one.

    By the way, I’m still open to (though not counting on) the possibility that when I hear these Hitchcock albums from start to finish I might actually like them as much as UNDERWATER MOONLIGHT. The last Hitchcoch album I’ve heard in toto is JEWELS FOR SOPHIA.

  28. If that tinny, Rickenbacker and hi-hat smothered Underwater Moonlight is your idea of the best thing Robyn Hitchcock’s ever done (and I know you’re not alone, many believe that to be the case) I am banking on the fact that you will NOT like his new one anywhere near that much.

    Paul Simon’s an amazing case. In some ways we should have seen it coming, but the fact that he integreated so much “world music” into his songs at so late a date is something else.

  29. misterioso

    KingEd, for better or for worse, wouldn’t you say that Simon was integrating “world music” from at least 1970 (El Condor Pasa)? Admittedly, he didn’t go whole-hog until Graceland, I guess, but still, it was there for a long time.

  30. KingEd

    Definitely misterioso. That’s what I meant by saying “we should have seen it coming.” What I didn’t mean was to stick an extra “a” in integrated. In the case of Simon, it could be said he integreated the world music much better than most rock musicians have ever done.

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