Sunday, January 4, 2015

Music Review: Robyn Hitchcock 'The Man Upstairs'

British rock and roll troubadour Robyn Hitchcock's 2014 album The Man Upstairs is a mellow affair, heavy on the light acoustics and indebted to Americana folk music. It offers five new  Hitchcock compositions and five covers of songs by The Psychedelic Furs, Roxy Music, Grant-Lee Phillips, The Doors, and Norwegian indie-rock band I Was A King.

Listening to it, I'm reminded of Jonathan Demme's 1998 documentary concert film, Storefront Hitchcock, in which the Silence Of The Lambs movie director filmed the Soft Boys alumni and celebrated solo artist playing live to a small audience inside an abandoned New York City storefront. As he played, city passersby on the street stopped at the plate glass window backdrop behind the stage, cupped their hands against the glass, marveled over the strange lights and sound, and wondered what the hell is going on in there.

Here, from the comfort of your own listening space, you can still wonder what the hell is going on inside Hitchcock. The veteran songwriter, who shot to minor American fame in the 1980s with his band The Egyptians, creates songs that aren't easily categorized, fusing elements of Syd Barrett's cosmic imagery, Bob Dylan's dusty folk narrative, and The Beatles psychedelic explorations. After listening to a Hitchcock piece, one might find himself in the deepest of thought, yet have little idea what that thought is, like a dream you struggle to remember.

The Man Upstairs is quiet and assured and spiked with a rock 'n roll edge. At 61 years of age, Hitchcock's voice is as rich and commanding as a hormonal teenager's, and his new compositions again battle for equilibrium between the oracular self and the cosmic powers that be. The purely Americana folk song Trouble In Your Blood cites the human condition to be "a well constructed shadow" while resigned acoustic strings and accompanying cello filter in like a foggy mountain breakdown pause for thought. "Comme Toujours" and "San Francisco Patrol" are both engaging quiet listens with a perfectly balanced arrangement of vocal, guitar and cello.

Grant-Lee Phillips' "Don't Look Down" is stark and haunting under Hitchcock's arrangement, even more so than the original's pastiche of dark colors. It sounds like a deadly balancing act on a high wire  with its foreboding refrain and lyrics that must have delighted Hitchcock's surreal comedic sense - "Buster Keaton and I danced out on the window sill/Ten stories high".

Some of the covers are a bit ordinary. There are no great turns to The Furs' "The Ghost In You" or Jim Morrison's "The Crystal Ship", although Hitchcock's interpretations, more revering than explorative,  fits well in the album's introspective tone. Only once does he break out and rock, on the bluesy thumping new song "Somebody To Break Your Heart", which adds a harmonica to the acoustic mix.

Folk artist Gillian Welch is responsible for the album's cool cover art.

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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Music Review - Royksopp - 'The Inevitable End'

Bobby Vinton's recording of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Blue On Blue" was an inspiration on Royksopp's 2001 debut album Melody A.M. The song's ghostly refrain sounded like a trapped and homeless melody hurdling through the cosmos destined for future generations to discover and ponder. There are more pop music archaeological digs on their fifth and amicably announced final album, The Inevitable End, although nothing as memorable as Bobby Vinton drifting through the galaxies.

The album continues Royksopp's retroactive electronic rock, shaped with dark energy of wasted matter made musical, and a hungry dedication to the beat boxes and synthesized keyboards of 1980s synth-pop bands. The Norwegian duo - Svein Berge and Torbjorn Brundtland - have put a significant dent in global music sales over the years, helped no doubt by the corporate use of Royksopp's music in major TV advertising - T. Mobile in the U.K., Geico in the U.S. While their Euro-rhythm melodies suit the slick commercials well, their songs are more often terminally dark and caustic, equal parts lovesick and suicidal.

On the chorale-like "You Know I Have To Go", Royksopp's somber testimony is as resigned as the last message in a bottle from a drowning man. The constant thump of a clinical heartbeat and the subtle sound of a lazy wave breaking at shore add mournful drama to the mix. Picture 10cc's "I'm Not In Love" gripped with a shiny, taunting razor blade.

"I Had This Thing" follows the same formula with layers of electronic keyboards threatening to evolve into the sound of Catholic mass before it breaks into an upbeat techno dance number, even while the lyrics anchor the song in contemplative desperation - "I don't remember anymore what I used to be, there was a fire burning inside of me".

This sad but danceable music is given a shot of sunshine with remedial tracks featuring Norwegian singer/songwriter Susanne Sundfor on lead vocals. "Save Me" and "Running To The Sea" have a radio-ready Madonna-like glitter ball pizzazz, the former sounding like Blondie after the tide has gone out again, the latter reaching symphonic grandness like Kate Bush pursuing a mountain summit.

If there is an issue with Royksopp's bon voyage, it is the repetition of song structures and a few throwaway tracks.  "You Know I Have To Go" and "I Had This Thing" are virtually interchangeable. "Coup de Grace" is a remarkably uninspired short instrumental and "Ronk" seems only to give the album its parental advisory sticker with the repeated use of mankind's favorite four-letter word.

The adventurous musical virtues far outweigh the wasted space though, and when you're not contemplating ending it all, you can dance to it. The CD issue comes with a second CD of added tracks.

this article was first published at