Remember how John Lennon used to imitate Bob Dylan? Like on "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "Working Class Hero" and stuff? Well, picture Dylan imitating Lennon instead. Now endow him with Roger McGuinn's jangly guitar style, Syd Barrett's dislocated psychedelia and a lyrical sensibility somewhere between Captain Beefheart's surrealist environmentalism and Monty Python's "Eric the Half-a-Bee" sketch. That's Robyn Hitchcock, and there's a lot of back catalog to explore. Including stuff by his old band the Soft Boys, there've been about 25 Robyn Hitchcock albums since 1978.
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Hitchcock has long been a hero to the Americana underground. Way back in the mid-'80s, members of Camper Van Beethoven used to tell this joke: How many members of R.E.M. does it take to change a light bulb? Two -- one to actually change the bulb and one to turn over the Soft Boys record. Paul Westerberg can be heard stumbling through a half-remembered cover of Hitchcock's "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus" on the Replacements' notorious The Shit Hits the Fans live cassette, and the only time I saw Uncle Tupelo they opened with Hitchcock's anthemic "I Wanna Destroy You." So it should really be no surprise that Spooked, the newest Hitchcock disc, is a collaboration with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, the first couple of modern quasi-traditionalist folk-country. Or should it?
Regardless, it works. Hitchcock has never sounded more relaxed. Throughout, his guitar lines intertwine with Welch's strum and Rawlings's Dobro so effortlessly, and all their voices blend so mellifluously, that you hardly notice the virtuosity. At times Welch and Rawlings's harmonies recall the mid-'60s Kinks records where Ray Davies's then-wife, Rasa, and brother Dave would mix their voices together electronically to create an otherworldly, androgynous falsetto. Hitchcock's lyrics remain idiosyncratic and evocatively odd: stuff like "Now the party's over, the drugs are taking themselves" and "You can cut them down like weeds but you'll never make them love you," etc.
The mood of Spooked runs the gamut from the pristine "Television" ("I undress before your light") to the rollicking "We're Gonna Live in the Trees" ("Guess what? I've spoken to Norm"), from the pluperfect folk-pop of "Full Moon in My Soul" ("You can have my cigarettes and baby you can have my cough") to the graveyard creep of "Demons & Fiends" ("All I tread on are nostrils and skulls"). There's even a haunting Dylan cover, the late-period "Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door," wherein time itself seems to stop in the poetic contemplation of the infinite vs. the earthly.
All this and an electric sitar solo. Who could complain?