Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Robyn Hitchcock 17: Jewels For Sophia and A Star For Bram

1999 brought a new album, with the promise of a CD of leftovers (just like last time), which did indeed arrive in the new year. The trouble is, neither the “official” album nor the outtakes is very good on its own.
Jewels For Sophia begins with “Mexican God”, a two-chord song that sounds too much like the other two-chord songs here. “The Cheese Alarm” might appeal to Monty Python fans, but it comes across as forced whimsy, with a proto-Indian backing that tries but fails. “Viva! Sea-Tac” was about eight years late, but it’s the first rocker on the album and the line about computers, coffee and smack is pretty good. “I Feel Beautiful” and “You’ve Got A Sweet Mouth On You, Baby” could probably have been combined into one underwhelming song. And despite the heralded return of Soft Boy Kimberley Rew to a Robyn album, “NASA Clapping” is really annoying.
He also appears on “Sally Was A Legend”, the first decent song on the album, but “Antwoman” is an exercise in clutter and “Elizabeth Jade” is too close to “Sea-Tac” to stand out. “No, I Don’t Remember Guildford”, first heard on Storefront Hitchcock, reappears here in a version even lovelier, with brushed drums and piano. “Dark Princess” would have been an excellent dramatic ending, but the title track insists on adding some pep, complete with dotty piano. Then there are the hidden tracks—a silly phone message about the movie Goodfellas, the wonderfully dissonant “Mr. Tongs” and the hilarious “Gene Hackman”. Even with that, it’s his least enjoyable album since Groovy Decoy.

Nobody bought the album except for the fans, who also snapped up the fan club-only A Star For Bram, which has some better songs. “Daisy Bomb” is pretty simple, but the female backing makes it enjoyable, as is timely name-drop of “I Saw Nick Drake”. “Adoration Of The City” mostly beats its riff into the ground, but “1974” is very well expanded upon here, showing it’s not such a bad thing to have a rhythm section. “I Wish I Liked You” is an unforgettable blues. “Nietzsche’s Way” is a sly tribute to Spirit, but “The Philosophers’ Stone” doesn’t sink in. Slightly better are “The Green Boy” and “Judas Sings (Jesus & Me)” (written for a movie nobody saw), followed by an unnecessary “dub” version of “Antwoman”. The gorgeous “I Used To Love You” comes too soon after a similar title. Luckily, “We Are The Underneath” ends it all with a good groove and wacky timing.

Of the two, A Star For Bram gets a slight edge over Jewels For Sophia by not trying to be as, well, edgy. But not being in a regular band and releasing what appear to be enhanced demos don’t help his case at all. The big problem with these albums is the schizophrenic production. Jon Brion and his keyboards are used here and there, but results sound like other people’s records. In the past, Robyn didn’t sound like anyone else. By combining most of Bram with the better songs on Sophia, he might have ended up with something worth keeping. But he didn’t, and we were wondering if he truly had the magic anymore.

Robyn Hitchcock Jewels For Sophia (1999)—2
Robyn Hitchcock A Star For Bram (2000)—3

1 comment:

  1. I love both these albums, although I find "Viva! Sea-Tac" grating. I like these more than any of the A&M albums with the possible exception of Respect.