Song of the Day, July 13: This Could Be the Day by Robyn Hitchcock

RobynCouldBeToday’s song presents both determination and peril. Robyn Hitchcock’s stunning I Often Dream of Trains is a showcase for his eccentric storytelling. He opens side two with one of the most energetic numbers, the driving This Could Be the Day.

The narrator of the song seems pleased that this day has come, offering a number of odd, elliptical observations for how it might be celebrated. Woven through these happy ponderings are moments of menace, with “tongues of fire” being flung through the tropical night. The urgent narrative underscores the very Hitchcockian message that dreams and nightmares are made of the same stuff.

Enjoy this great song today.

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Album of the Week, March 27: Robert’s Desert Island Discs

RBHSJDIDBadgeToday’s entry is something a little different. As I was looking over the almost 200 albums I have featured over the years, I asked myself the question that drives the famous BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs: If I were stranded on an island, which discs would I be sure to have with me?

The task proved more daunting than I imagined, so I established a few guidelines and started over. These parameters made the selection a little bit easier.

  1. Original, legitimate releases only: no bootlegs, re-issues with bonus tracks, or any other chicanery to pad the offerings.
  2. Enjoy every track: If this is all I ever get to listen to, it had better be great. A perfect test case is Rubber Soul: it’s an unquestionably brilliant album, but if I had to listen to Michelle or Girl more than once a month, I’d throw myself into the shark-infested waters.
  3. Balance, balance, balance: I tried to embrace the breadth of my tastes and represent a good cross-section of the artists I love.
  4. When in doubt, favorite artists win: My collection includes several acts represented by one great album. In order to represent the artists whose whole catalogs I appreciate, I dropped the one-only artists. That included the hard decisions to eliminate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Rumours, Blood On the Tracks, and I Am A Bird Now.
  5. Greatest hits: I pondered banning these as a corallary to rule 1, but decided to take them on their own merits. As it turns out, I didn’t wind up with any of these on the list, although I looked closely at a couple. In the end, rule 2 trumped them.

I set my album allowance at 13. Why that number? I could say that it represents the bad luck of being stranded on a desert island, but honestly trying to get to eight — the BBC number — was maddening. My list, my rules, so if this Gilligan-adjacent experience includes a weatherproof sound system, it has room for 13 discs.

Without further ado, here they are, in the order in which I finalized their placement on the list.

Richard & Linda ThompsonShoot out the LightsHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTShoot Out the Lights (1982, Hannibal) Richard & Linda Thompson
Surprising no-one, I’m sure, this was my first choice — brilliant lyrics, stellar playing, solid band, two of my favorite artists on one disc. Harrowing but hopeful, it captures the human spirit better than anything else for me. Linda delivers some of her best vocals and Richard some of his finest solos. If I had to pick 25 songs to take to the island (please, no!), at least four of them would be from this album.

DifferentKindofLoveSongA Different Kind of Love Song (1983, Appleseed) Dick Gaughan
Another easy choice for me, with some of the best protest music ever written. Gaughan is in fine voice and his guitar work is impeccable. It’s a collection of often dark songs with a shining heart beating at its core. The title track sums things up brilliantly, and inspired me to write an essay for Michael’s blog on the importance of looking at the darkness if we want to get to the light.

AbyssiniansAbyssinians (1983, Topic) June Tabor
June Tabor had to be on the list, but picking the album was tricky. This is my favorite by a narrow margin, and includes a stunning cover of a Waterson song, so it won the day. As Elvis Costello has famously observed, if listening to June Tabor’s voice doesn’t move you, give up music. (Bonus fact: She has worked as a librarian and restaurateur, so she covers the bases of my passions nicely…)

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsI Often Dream of Trains (1984, Hannibal) Robyn Hitchcock
Another artist I had to have on the island, but a tougher choice. The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight and the Egyptians’ Element of Light are co-equal with this disc for me. It came down to the essence of the album. The spare setting of Trains lets Robyn shine through in all his eccentric glory.

LastWordThe Last Word (1992, RNA) Gregson & Collister
Another nice package, with two of my favorites on one album, both at the height of their powers. Clive Gregson’s observations about life and love are timeless, and this set includes a couple of tracks written with Boo Hewerdine, another favorite. Christine Collister has a wonderful voice that sometimes gets over-emphasized on her solo discs. Here, the production is flawless.

MitchellC&SCourt and Spark (1974, Asylum) Joni Mitchell
One of the few commercial successes on my list, it’s a little jazz, a little pop, a little folk, all tied together by the singular talents of Joni Mitchell. It also features her finest vocals, not as airy and bright as her earlier work and not as Cohen-adjacent as her later. All of that, and songs about David Geffen and James Taylor! What could be finer?

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_NowEverything’s Different Now (1988, Epic) ’til tuesday
A sentimental favorite, this is an album I play when I’m feeling lost. It’s a powerful look at relationships and how they go wrong — and right. It landed at just the right time for me, providing insight and outlet as I worked through my own issues. Aimee Mann found her lyrical voice, presaging her later solo work. The band is crisp and smart, lending power to the songs. This is as close to flawless as 80s pop gets.

yaz-you_and_me_bothYou and Me Both (1983, Sire) Yaz(oo)
Speaking of 80s pop… A quick look at my Songs of the Day reveals my fondness for the music of my teen years. As I’ve aged, my favorites tend to be the more obscure music, especially synth-pop and smart dance tracks. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke perfected both. Their brief collaboration as Yazoo (Yaz in the States) turned out two fine albums. This is the better of the pair by a safe margin. Creative synth work, good lyrics, and Alison Moyet’s rich, wonderful voice — magnificent!

FogelbergInnocentThe Innocent Age (1981, Full Moon / Epic) Dan Fogelberg
Not quite the first album I ever bought — an honor that goes to Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb — I consider this the launch of my serious music collecting. It’s also a great collection of songs, singer-songwriter magic at its most compelling. Fogelberg gets pigeonholed as an AC balladeer, but his songs could rock, jig, or soar as well. This beautiful song cycle, created as a cradle-to-grave series, shows off all his talents to great effect. A sentimental and musical favorite, packed with hits.

watersonlOnceinaOnce In A Blue Moon (1996, Topic) Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight
The only reason the extended Waterson family shows up this late is that it was nearly impossible to pick one album. While a stay on Waterson:Carthy island would be delightful, Rule 3 demanded a choice. In the end, a dash of Rule 2 combined with the fact that Lal Waterson is one of my favorite songwriters ruled the day. A brilliant set of songs told in her distinctive style with sympathetic support from her talented son, it’s one of the rare albums that I’ll sometimes put on repeat. As an added bonus, Some Old Salty wraps up the album with a good old family sing-along, sneaking some talented relatives onto the island. Family runners-up included Martin Carthy, Bright Phoebus, Norma Waterson, and Red Rice.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Liege & Lief (1969, A&M) Fairport Convention
Another tough choice. Fairport belonged on the list (although the Richard Thompson double-dip almost got them cut), and What We Did On Our Holidays is my favorite of their albums. This is a close second, however, and Rule 3 brought it home. A pioneering disc, creating the trad-rock genre, it shows the band at the peak of their powers and adds more traditional British music to my island mix.

FearingIndLulIndustrial Lullaby (1997, True North) Stephen Fearing
Another Rule 3 decision, made with great difficulty. I encountered three very different modern folk talents in the same year (1993) and they form a musical trinity for me. Stephen Fearing, Patty Larkin, and Ellis Paul have unique voices but could easily share a stage. (I’d pay to see that!) Since they weren’t here to play rock-paper-scissors, the decision came down to the sheer poetry — lyrical and musical — of Fearing’s album and its astounding cohesion.

TriffidsCalentureCalenture (1987, Island) The Triffids
I had five albums left on my list, and the Triffids dark masterpiece won the final spot. This album is the least like anything else on the list (with Yaz coming in a close second), a strong rock sound with a uniquely West Australian perspective. Urgent and compelling from start to finish, it’s one of the strongest Rule 2 albums in my collection. It didn’t hurt that the title refers to hallucinations caused by too much time at sea.

There you have it, my island playlist is complete. Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge the many amazing artists that bring me musical joy who stayed safely on dry land: The Bats, Peter Blegvad, Nick Drake, the Finn Brothers in all their incarnations, Jethro Tull, the extended McGarrigle – Wainwright family, Stephin Merritt and his many projects, Oysterband, R.E.M., Spirit of the West, those mentioned above, and many more. I’m VERY glad that I don’t have to make this choice as anything but an interesting exercise.

Finally, a note of farewell to my Album of the Week feature. I truly enjoy writing these pieces — and there are certainly more albums to explore — but the limits of my time, collection, and budget demand closure. It seemed fitting that I bookend the regular features with two Richard & Linda Thompson albums and close out these posts as my Jukebox celebrates its fifth anniversary. I will continue my Song of the Day every weekday and Saturday Time Capsules; I may also add an album now and then as inspiration strikes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the music of my island is calling…

Song of the Day, March 23: I Wanna Destroy You by the Soft Boys

SoftBoysDestroyToday’s song is amazingly direct. For their second full-length album, Underwater Moonlight, the Soft Boys blended their punk spirit, psychedelic roots, and raw talent into something special. On the opening track, they spelled out their mission is stark terms. The world is a mess, and the forces that are trashing it need to be put down. Over a searing guitar, Robyn Hitchcock declaims a manifesto on the redemptive power of music and a desire to fix his broken world. The Boys provide solid harmonies as they chant the chorus, finally fading out with a grim howl. It’s a wonderful song, remarkable in a catalog best known for strange creatures and subtle intrigue.

Enjoy this punk powerhouse today.

Album of the Week, March 13: Element of Light by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

robyn_hitchcock_the_egyptians-element_of_lightRobyn Hitchcock first made waves with the unique punkedelia of the Soft Boys. When the band dissolved, he went solo, releasing a solid effort, a fascinating mess, and a quiet masterpiece. When he decided to work with a band again, he called on two old friends, Soft Boys Andy Metcalfe (bass, keyboards, guitar) and Morris Windsor (drums). Adding keyboard player Roger Jackson, he introduced Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. The group built on Hitchcock’s solo work, providing an edgy folk-rock sound that polished the energy of the Soft Boys into a perfect setting for the singer/guitarist’s surrealist musings on life. After a solid start with Fegmania and a deliciously powerful live album, the group hit their stride with one of the finest albums in Hitchcock’s long, distinctive career.

Album Element of Light
Act Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
Label Midnight Release Date 1986
Producer Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Metcalfe with Pat Collier
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. If You Were A Priest
  2. Winchester
  3. Somewhere Apart
  4. Ted, Woody and Junior
  5. The President
  6. Raymond Chandler Evening
  7. Bass
  8. Airscape
  9. Never Stop Bleeding
  10. Lady Waters and the Hooded One
  11. The Black Crow Knows
  12. The Crawling
  13. The Leopard
  14. Tell Me About Your Drugs

Element of Light refers to Hitchcock’s experience of the natural beauty on his favorite beach, located on the Isle of Wight, the scene of the photographs on the album sleeve.. That sense of naturalism runs through much of his work and provides the touchstone for this collection. Hitchcock also opens another window into his influences. Where his solo acoustic wonder, I Often Dream of Trains, was partly an ode to Syd Barrett, much of this disc resonates with touches of John Lennon circa Revolver. While clearly his own work, the band leader’s vocals and guitar — as well as his smart reliance on talented bandmates — clearly reference his hero.

Things open with an off-kilter romance that could have come from the Soft Boys’ catalog. If You Were A Priest is a fun romp and a smart way to start the proceedings. Winchester is a lush ode to a stop between London and the Isle of Wight. Lush and textured, it features an elegantly swirling piano, delicate brushwork on the drums, and rich harmonies from Metcalfe and Windsor. Gorgeous and meditative, it forms a key part of the quiet naturalism of the album.

Somewhere Apart is that strangest of beasts, a moment where one might easily say of a Hitchcock song, “That could have been a hit!” Relying heavily on the rhythm section, it’s danceable and charming, subversively featuring typical Hitchcock absurdities among the dance references. Nostalgia gets skewered on Ted, Woody and Junior an ode to the homoeroticism of 50s muscle magazines. The skewer gets sharper on The President, a rare moment of overt political commentary. Hitchcock shreds Ronald Reagan’s visit to the SS cemetery at Bitburg, neatly dissecting the Cowboy President’s disastrous legacy.

With an eerie bass keyboard, Raymond Chandler Evening is pure Hitchcock noir. One of the singer’s finest moments, it captures the spirit of the mystery master in glimpses and dark hints. It also features a line that sums up Hitchcock’s career nicely: “I’d like to reassure you, but I’m not that kind of guy.” Bass is a surrealist bit of naturalism, a twisted catalog of sea creatures and their activities. Think Bosch visits the seaside…

The album’s centerpiece — featuring the title line — is the magnificent Airscape. With a wonderful glass harmonica and lyrical, sympathetic playing, Hitchcock crafts an ode to the splendor of nature. Soaring and sincere, it finds Hitchcock channeling Walt Whitman and Van Morrison through his very personal musical lens. Another standout in his whole catalog, it ensures this disc’s place among the finest of his career.

Never Stop Bleeding is a quiet meditation on suffering, a darker moment of naturalism. It manages to be brooding and sympathetic at once, a powerful combination. The original album ends with the amazing neo-folk ballad Lady Waters and the Hooded One. With nice harmonies, a driving bass line, and searing guitar moments, it could be a Fairport Convention outtake, if not for the distinctly Hitchcock twist to the story. It’s a fine wrap-up to an amazing album.

The initial CD release features four bonus tracks, all of which add something to the mix — something many extras fail to do. The Black Crow Knows is a smart bit on the power of nature, a dark little warning that fits perfectly. The Crawling is a bit of horror movie charm, ominous and mysterious. The Leopard is a slighter moment of naturalism, but a fine song in its own right and a  solid ecological warning. Tell Me About Your Drugs works as a great coda, matching the Soft Boys tones of the opening track with a wink, a nod, and a knowing grimace.

Over the course of 14 tracks, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians provide the listener with a fun, smart, distinctive set of songs. They fuse eccentric psychedelia, folk rock, and smart pop, adding something special that makes Element of Light a standout album and a highlight of a long, fascinating career.

FURTHER LISTENING: I’ve looked at Hitchcock’s solo and Soft Boys catalogs on previous Albums of the Week. He spent a decade recording with the Egyptians, taking a brief break to release a solo acoustic album in 1990. With the burgeoning commercial potential of the college / alternative music scene, A&M signed the Egyptians following Element of Light, releasing their subsequent four albums. In general, all these Egyptians discs feature a few amazing songs with some solid but less inspiring Hitchcockiana.

Fegmania is a solid start. The first two A&M albums — Globe of Frogs and Queen Elvis — are nearly as good, with the second being a bit more consistent. The last two discs — Perspex Island and Respect — suffer from slickness and a too-comfortable-with-themselves feeling. A&M’s Greatest Hits is a fine way to summarize these four discs and also features some great singles, outtakes, and side projects. Gotta Let This Hen Out!, the band’s live album and second release, is one of their best moments and captures their live energy well.

Song of the Day, December 7: Mr. Deadly by Robyn Hitchcock

RobynDeadlyRobyn Hitchcock has always been a prolific writer, leaving dozens of interesting songs aside as he crafts his albums. In 1986, he gathered together a bunch of these leftovers as Invisible Hitchcock, an oddly cohesive set that he describes as songs that

didn’t fit in with what I was doing at the time and do fit in with each other now

One of the finest moments is the eerie Mr. Deadly, a collection of mysterious vignettes. The title character lurks behind the scenes, never fully comprehended. With a spooky synth line and a perfect deadpan delivery, Hitchcock creates one of his best character sketches.

And all who hear him say you must further gone then they
And all who hear him say he must be mad to be himself

Enjoy this dark delight today.

 

Song of the Day, September 24: The President by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

HitchcockPresidentToday’s song is a scathing look at 80s geopolitics. After a couple of solo albums, Robyn Hitchcock sidelined his solo career to reunite with some old Soft Boys colleagues, creating his new band, the Egyptians. Their second album is the magnificent Element of Light, a standout in his long career. Mostly recorded at Alaska studios, two songs were recorded live at the BBC.

One of that pair is The President. The live recording gives it an urgency well-suited to its theme. Hitchcock describes US President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Bitburg, Germany, a famous WWII burial site. Reflecting British skepticism of the cowboy actor’s skill as a world leader, Hitchcock dissects the visit with his trademark wit and some nice post-punk rage. The Egyptians are definitely on board, snarling along behind him with energy reminiscent of their Soft Boys days.

He’s the President of Europe and he’s talking to the dead
They’re the only ones who’ll listen or believe a word he’s said.

Enjoy this nice bit of commentary today.

Song of the Day, July 20: I Used to Say I Love You by Robyn Hitchcock

RobynUsedToSayToday’s song is a rare example of an outtake that truly enhances an album as a later bonus track. When Robyn Hitchcock recorded his stripped-down masterpiece I Often Dream of Trains, he had a few songs left over. The album’s first release on compact disc added a handful of these tracks, sequenced nicely between the two original vinyl sides. Unlike most CD bonus tracks of the era, the whole set actually expanded the vision of the album, creating a stronger package than the original release.

I Used to Say I Love You is the finest of these songs. It’s remarkably straightforward for Hitchcock, eschewing his usual sideways observations and eccentric meditations. While still featuring his wry, distinctive look at the world, the song bids farewell to a romance  that wasn’t based on much beyond the physical. Smart, funny, and touching, it’s a wonderful bit of honest emotion from a master of the sly and elliptical.

I used to say I love you
It wasn’t really true
I wanted to believe it
And now I almost do

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, May 18: Glass by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

RobynGlassFegToday’s song finds Robyn Hitchcock reunited with some old bandmates. After three solo discs, he assembled a new band — the Egyptians — featuring a few former Soft Boys and put together the album Fegmania! It’s a mixed bag, featuring some fun wordplay, some great playing, and some ideas that aren’t quite fully realized. One of the standouts is the wistful Glass. The wordplay is clever but poignant, eschewing his typical surreal approach. It’s a meditative number that would have been at home on his solo acoustic disc I Often Dream of Trains, exploring the various kinds of fragility and transparency that affect our relationships.

Glass is all we’re really made of and Glass is all we’ll ever be Nothing there to be afraid of, We’re both transparent, can’t you see?

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, March 20: Autumn Is Your Last Chance by Robyn Hitchcock

RobynAutumnTrainsToday’s song is Autumn Is Your Last Chance, a standout track from Robyn Hitchcock’s quiet masterpiece I Often Dream of Trains. Hitchcock crafts a delicate web of natural images, noting their beauty and his inability to appreciate them because his love is gone. His fragile delivery is perfect for the gentle lyric of loss and sorrow. The song is a stunning, atypically straightforward track, demonstrating another side of Hitchcock’s talents.

The dew on the cobwebs
Shines like gold
But I don’t care
If it shines all year
‘Cause you’re not there and
I don’t care and
You’re not there

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, January 30: Lady Waters and the Hooded One by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

robyn_hitchcock_the_egyptians-element_of_lightToday’s song is the closing track of Robyn Hitchcock’s second album with the Egyptians, Element of Light. After a couple of solo discs, Hitchcock reunited with some of his former bandmates from the Soft Boys, adding a bit of muscle back into his sound. He kept some of the folky elements he had been exploring, weaving tales of strange characters and curious events.

Lady Waters and the Hooded One fits nicely into the folk tradition of making a bargain with Death (or, sometimes, the Devil). During the Black Death, Lady Waters finds herself alone when the Hooded One arrives to taunt her. She strikes a bargain with him, tricking him into taking the disease from her, leaving her poor but alive. It’s a smart twist, and Hitchcock builds the tension perfectly. The band set a great musical backdrop, swirling around the vocals to powerful effect.

Enjoy this modern fable today.

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