Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 - Goodnight Oslo Review

When someone graduates from stirring young voice to elder statesman, there's always a temptation to write off new material with shrugs. How many artists are better than they were twenty years prior? With precious few exceptions, the answer is none, in no small part to the fact that a lengthy career of relevance in the spotlight usually requires near-classic returns during the pioneer days. Robyn Hitchcock is one such example of this unfortunate but undeniable trend. And along with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Ministry's Bill Rieflin and Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey (which make up Venus 3), they represent a supergroup of sorts that all have similar claims made upon them. All of them found their best years during the 80s, but they are also of that ever-shrinking class that overcame dips during the 90s and the early part of the new millennium to now emerge refurbished and vital once again.

Long associated with quirkiness, surrealism and eccentricity, Robyn's been lumped into the pretentious prestige of “thinking man”'s rock n' roll, as if brainiacs can't appreciate hair metal or morons can't cozy up to Mozart. Along with the Venus 3 lineup, there's also room for several guests, including vocalists of other skewed acts like the Decemberists (Colin Meloy) and Harvey Danger (Sean Nelson). Having all that prolific talent at his beck and call doesn't necessarily mean that Hitchcock is ready for action, though. His blender influence of Bob Dylan's mood and Syd Barrett's kinky lyricism is always present, but Venus 3's broader sound borders on old-fashioned; but is there a better tonic to today's retro/machine overkill? Either way, although there are few numbers on here demanding spin after spin, the worst you can say about any of them is that they're simply “pleasant.”

Beginning with a subdued blues melody, Dixie-ish horns and back-up vocals from Lianne Francis, Hitchcock is a long way from the Soft Boys and Egyptians right off the bat. “What You Is” is a slice of Memphis R&B that doesn't necessarily play to his strengths, but Hitchcock brings a smoky swagger to the song anyhow, forgoing empty wryness for tongue-in-cheek motto-grasping at the refrain. “It doesn't matter what you was, it's what you is and what you is is what you are.” Typically, it's a simple and serious message twisted by Hitchcock's screwball tongue/pen.

The 60s aren't ignored elsewhere, though folk rock and harmonic pop is the chief guidepost instead of R&B. Roger McGuinn's guitar sound is found all over this album, and the harmonies seem equally inspired by the Beach Boys and the Hollies, all furnished by the crooked troubador style of Dylan and the eclecticism of '67-'68 Beatles. “Saturday Groovers” reflects all of these signatures into a singular passage, jostling with ba-da-bums, sunny harmonies, the bounce of prettily-distorted guitars, trumpet flares and basic-but-potent percussion. But the offbeat subject matter remains in Hitchcock's vault.

“Your Head Here” meanwhile recalls his own Soft Boys heritage, with more than a hint of a weary but polemic Dylan drag in Hitchcock's own nuanced snarl-to-smirk aesthetic. “Hurry for the Sky” marries a country-western choo-choo shuffle with the same sort of vocal inflection, slightly itchier, twitchier and clinging to well-bottled desperation. As for the title track finale, it begins hinting at apocalyptic menace but winds up as just a rumbling surge that climaxes in an almost quaint way—quaint, that is, after years of inflated arena-friendly barn-burners that mistake massiveness for magnitude.

The concerns of “TLC” follow another 80s legend's recent work. Consumed with the numbing effects of pharmaceuticals, Hitchcock runs through a brief medicine cabinet list (Tryptisol, Librium and Carbitol) in much the same way that Morrissey handled “Something's Squeezing My Skull”'s bridge. But since Morrissey's chugged with anger and this one eerily drifts by in a narcohypnotic haze, it's less redundant than supportive (similar release dates obviously nullifies any accusations of plagiarism).

Not long after Morrissey and Nick Cave gave their best efforts in at least a dime, Hitchcock and crew give us their best in about the same span. Venus 3 were last heard (or, really, first heard) on Ole! Tarantula, one of those “little albums that could,” occasionally dazzling but ultimately uneven. But this one is the comeback, if such a term is even appropriate for Robyn Hitchcock, who has seen plenty of critical acclaim and cult adulation, but minimal sales and little mainstream appeal. He hasn't been in as much control of the medium since the Fegmania! days. It's not in the same league, but it does offer a package worthy of far more than long-time fan submission or outsider curiosity—it's a fine effort no matter how you view the canon or genre.

"Goodnight Oslo" is on sale February 17, 2009 from Yep Roc.

Matt Medlock


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