Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Soft Boys - Underwater Moonlight

Underwater moonlight sets the body free

Underwater Moonlight (1980) ****

Talk about self-conscious.  Frontman Robyn Hitchcock has spent his entire career trying very, very hard to fit the role of the English eccentric, trying to out-weird Syd Barrett - but he doesn't succeed, because you're aware that Hitchcock is archly pushing the envelope with deliberately oddball metaphors and imagery that he's carefully chosen for lyrics.  His songs are just too well-constructed and his lyrics just make too much clever, linear sense to convey genuine disjointed bent madness the way that the shambles of Syd Barrett's or Roky Erickson's solo albums do.  What this amounts to is that the New Psychedelia, this touchstone of the Paisley Underground, isn't particularly psychedelic or druggy at all - it's merely a rip-roaring gem of a punky power-pop album, ragged and jangly in all the right places.  The weirdness comes not so much in the music, which self-consciously touches on '60s hippiedom in only a few places (the fake sitars on "Positive Vibrations," are as annoying as the smarmy title), but in the lyrics, which are positively Freudian and as such no doubt heartfelt, if humorously and quirkily written as well as they are sincere.

Robyn suffers from that most common of mental maladies, a mild sexual neurosis.  The key track is "Kingdom of Love," which begins with Hitchcock smoothly delivering softly sung romantic lyrics appropriate to the title, before the band suddenly, savagely segues into the chorus as Hitchcock rips out lyrics quaking with the fear of pregnancy:  "You've been laying eggs under my skin / Now they're hatching under my chin.....All those tiny insects look like you!"  Getting pregnant is sort of an invasive Alien infestation, isn't it?  Elsewhere he wonders why people bother to get together when all they're going to do is settle down and breed.  OK, so you can say the man has some committment issues.  Other song titles such as the sarcastic "I'm in the Mood," blues parody, "I Got the Hots," make it clear that mocking the idea of love and romance is going to be Hitchcock's forte, at least on this album.  Do "Old Pervert," "Insanely Jealous,"  and "I Wanna Destroy You," make that even more crystal clear?  The thing is, Hitchcock offers such fare with a wry, dry humorous touch that leaves the listener grinning and nodding along, "Right-o, the old boy he does have a bit of point, does he - romance can be such a silly notion if you try to look at it analytically."

Not that anyone would bother listening if the songs weren't great.  "I Wanna Destroy You," opens with a searing scald of high-density p-p-power p-p-pop!, and "Tonight," an ode to the pleasures of stalking, is even more anthemically soaringly catchy.  "Queen of Eyes," allegedly inspired R.E.M. to imitate the Byrds via secondhand osmosis, as probably did the title track that majestically closes the album with its ultra-memorable chorus hook.  Of the ten tracks on the original LP, only the instrumental, "You'll Have to Go Sideways," which is far too repetitive to go anywhere sans vocals, and the flat-out ugly Beefheart blues, "Old Pervert," weigh the proceedings down. 

But wait, you get 26 bonus tracks on the 2-disc reissue!  Which isn't quite the bargain it seems.  "He's a Reptile," a blatant steal from the Crystals' "He's a Rebel," was a fine non-LP single, and Syd Barrett's "Vegetable Man," a choice cover.  After that it gets shaky.  The remaining seven bonus tracks on disc one are all outtakes of varying quality, with some more polished than others.  It's easy to see why none made the cut to graduate to the original LP, but they are enjoyable tracks of the second-rank if you happen to love the LP and want more of the same in a similar style.  The second disc, however, is a total waste.  It's entitled "...And How It Got There" and is merely a collection of rough demos from the studio sessions.  Why anyone would need four run-throughs of "Old Pervert," is beyond me; it's a disc that even hardcore fans will be hard-pressed to listen to more than once or twice.  Oh well, it's not as it's all herded on a separate disc and you can ignore it, can't you?  So just play the glorious first disc and pretend disc #2 doesn't exist, which I've been doing for years.  Oh, and this was the second and final Soft Boys album during their original lifetime (they reformed briefly in the early '00s), as they broke up shortly after this release.  Guitarist Kimberly Rew formed Katrina & the Waves who hit the charts with the most annoyingly, obnoxiously catchy song of all time, "Walking on Sunshine".  Robyn Hitchcock went on to a long and illustrious solo career, which I may or may not get around to reviewing someday - but nothing he's released since matches this peak of power-poppy punky neo-psychedelia.  He only forgot one of the three P's - where's the prog?  Where are the prawns?

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