Album of the Week, December 14: I Often Dream of Trains by Robyn Hitchcock
December 14, 2014 Leave a comment
Robyn Hitchcock was born in London in 1953. While at Winchester College he began a musical career, eventually forming the psychedelic punk quartet the Soft Boys. The band recorded two stellar albums and an EP, then dissolved as Hitchcock began a solo career. His debut, Black Snake Diamond Rôle, borrowed part of a Soft Boys song title and was a logical progression from the band’s work. He followed with Groovy Decay, a frustrating mess of an album — with a couple of real gems — that has been reissued as Groovy Decoy and Gravy Deco to capture all the versions of the songs. Unhappy with the experience, Hitchcock took a break from recording. He decided to take a fresh approach for his next album, playing almost everything himself. The result is one of his finest recordings, a spare but compelling disc that shows off his lyrical charms and musical talents at their most fundamental and lovely.
|Title||I Often Dream of Trains|
|Label||Midnight Music||Release Date||1984|
|Producer||Robyn Hitchcock and Pat Collier|
|U.S. Chart||n/c||U.K. Chart||n/c|
A mostly acoustic album, it features great guitar and piano work, occasionally overdubbed to allow both instruments. Hitchcock’s vocals are simpler than his previous delivery, sometimes multi-tracked to provide harmonies, and far more open and emotional. While the lyrics are just as smart, funny, and often downright weird as ever, the presentation provides a far better setting for enjoying his pithy observations about life, death, sex, and — well — everything.
Making it clear that this is a differenty journey, he opens with the piano instrumental Nocturne, a sombre delight that works nicely as an introduction. Things amp up from there, with Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl feeling like a Soft Boys demo, an energetic romp about sexual fantasies. This one-two punch is a smart welcome.
Cathedral is a dark reflection on the lenses through which we view our lives, for better and for worse. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most poignant songs, delivered with a quiet, meditative vocal. Uncorrected Personality Traits finds the singer multi-tracking a quirky a cappella ode to pop psychology. It’s a funny song with just enough bite to continue the meditative tone of the disc.
Sounds Great When You’re Dead is a highlight, a stirring make-the-most-of-the-life-you’ve-got song told in dark vignettes. Lyrically compelling and musically inspired, it’s the clearest blueprint for future Hitchcock recordings and one of the best songs in his long career. James Fletcher joins the party for Flavour of Night, providing a haunting sax riff that nicely underscores the crystalline musical setting.
Side one of the original vinyl wraps up with another almost light-hearted number, the pseudo gospel Ye Sleeping Nights of Jesus. Hitchcock affects a wink-and-nod accent from the American South, leading a song — with Chris Cox on bass and harmonies — that sounds like it started around a revival meeting campfire. Anchored by the line “If you belive in nothing, it believes in you,” however, it’s a very Hitchcock look at the afterlife.
This Could Be the Day is an enthusiastic kick-off for side two, a driving song about seizing the day and rising above one’s “frumpy little life.” Peppered with Walter Mitty style perils, it’s both stirring and amusing. Trams of Old London is a nostalgic ode to rail travel, a quiet, lovely song with a romantic edge. Furry Green Atom Bowl is another a cappella track, sadly lacking the charm and punch of Uncorrected Personality Traits; it’s fine, but the closest thing to filler on this otherwise stunning set of songs.
Heart Full of Leaves is another instrumental, a dark, beautiful guitar track featuring some nice electric work paired with the central acoustic figure. It leads perfectly into Autumn Is Your Last Chance, an atypically direct song of romantic loss that finds Hitchcock in beautiful voice. It’s a fine love song with just the right Hitchcock edge to it and another permanent standout. The title track finds the singer dreaming of events on that rail system he eulogized earlier. With a ringing guitar line, he delivers the perfect closer to this charming, smart disc. Nocturne returns as a coda, a fine bookend to wrap up the journey.
REISSUES AND BONUS TRACKS: As with most of Hitchcock’s early catalog, Trains has been reissued a number of times with a variety of bonus tracks. The best set appears on the 1986 CD release, where five tracks are placed cleverly between side one and side two. They’re all pieces recorded in the same time frame as the album and fit nicely. Mellow Together is the least compelling, a goofy love song sung in a sort of Monty Python Gumby voice. Winter Love is a nicely bleak companion to Autumn Is Your Last Chance, and The Bones In the Ground ties into Sounds Great and Sleeping Knights with a charming sparkle. My Favourite Buildings is a perfect Hitchcockian ode and serves as a solid centerpiece to the new track listing. I Used to Say I Love You is the finest of this quintet, a fairly direct kiss-off song with just the right amount of off-kilter observation.
A 1995 Rhino re-issue moved these tracks to the end, spoiling the sequencing. It also adds five demos, which are fine but a bit pointless given the spare arrangements of the final versions. Yep Roc released yet a third version in 2007, also tacking the bonuses on the end. Mellow Together is omitted, which isn’t a serious loss. Four other songs are added: Chant/Aether, Not Even A Nurse, Slow Chant/That’s Fantastic Mother Church, and Traveller’s Fare. They’re all fine, but none are as good as the other bonus tracks. Two other demos replace the five from the Rhino version, a less eerie Heart Full of Leaves and a curious early version of the title track that’s by far the most interesting of the early glimpses.
Hitchcock also did a series of concerts in 2009 presenting most of the Yep Roc version as a live show. Released as I Often Dream of Trains In New York, it’s a fun experiment but doesn’t offer much new insight into the songs.
FURTHER LISTENING: In the three decades since the Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock has released a dozen solo albums, three discs with the Venus Three (featuring Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin) and a half dozen with the Egyptians (featuring some former Soft Boys). I’ll have more on the Egyptians in a later Album of the Week. All of his output is solid, mixing quirky observations with smart lyrics and sturdy musical settings, but few discs are as consistent as Trains. The best are Black Snake Diamond Rôle and Eye. He’s also released a string of outtake and oddity compilations; the best of these is the out-of-print Invisible Hitchcock, the elements of which have been redistributed as bonus tracks on other albums. Uncorrected Personality Traits is a nice overview of his career through 1997.