Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
Reviewed on this page:
Invisible Hits -
Gotta Let This Hen Out! - Element Of Light - Globe Of Frogs -
Queen Elvis -
Perspex Island - Respect -
You & Oblivion -
Moss Elixir -
Jewels For Sophia
An English eccentric in true Victorian style, Robyn Hitchock is probably the most introspective and poetic veteran of Britain's late 70s rock revolution.
Taking his cues from 60s heroes like John Lennon and Bob Dylan, he tries to blend whimsical, image-laden, subversively neurotic lyrics with unpredictable mid-tempo rock arrangements, genteel British folk influences, and eerie atmospherics.
The resulting formula is quite unique, sometimes close to the Doors' verbose posturing but always in touch with 80s alt rock fashions.
It usually works when he's collaborating with bassist/keyboard player Andy Metcalfe, a really fine musician whose creatively melodic bass lines make up for Hitchcock's monotonous baritone and less-than-virtuosic guitar playing.
But unless you find Hitchcock's mordantly witty lyrics totally fascinating, you should stay away from his long string of underproduced, unfocused solo albums.
I wouldn't rank him above contemporaries like U2, Midnight Oil, Elvis Costello, or XTC, most of whom are much harder-rocking and better at writing catchy pop tunes. But he does have a distinct sound and is definitely worth getting to know.
Hitchock got his start by co-leading an energetic New Wave group called the Soft Boys with guitarist Kimberly Rew. None of their albums over a three-year period were a major success, and the band collapsed in 1981, at which point Hitchcock began his own solo career. By 1985 he reformed the band, minus Rew, and renamed it the Egyptians. Their fine 1986 album Element Of Light led to a major-label contract, and since then Hitchcock has alternated between polished Egyptians records and hit-or-miss solo albums.
As for Rew, he cut a solo album in 1982 and then founded the moderately successful mid-80s rock band Katrina and the Waves. I've got their key record and it's just terrible, with a bunch of thin, dated-sounding 80s pop tunes and unimpressive musicianship.
The key Hitchcock web resources are his official site, with the usual discography and tour dates plus photos and paintings, and the fan-run fegMANIA!, with goodies like an exhaustively detailed time line and current concert dates. (JA)
The Soft Boys - Formed 1976. Robyn Hitchcock (vocals, guitar), Andy Metcalfe (bass, keyboards, backing vocals), Kimberley Rew (lead guitar), Morris Windsor (drums, backing vocals). Metcalfe replaced by Matthew Seligman, 1979. Band split, 1981.
The Egyptians - Formed 1984. Hitchcock, Metcalfe, Windsor, and Roger Jackson (keyboards, backing vocals).
Live At The Portland Arms (The Soft Boys: rec. 1978, rel. 1983)
A Can Of Bees (The Soft Boys: 1979)
Invisible Hits (The Soft Boys: rec. 1978 - 1979, rel. 1983)
A set of eclectic original material whose release was delayed.
Several tunes are near-classics: "Empty Girl" blends Dali-esque lyrics and foot-stomping, late 60s Who-influenced dynamics; "Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole" weds arty nonsense to a shuddering Bo Diddley beat; "He's A Reptile" sounds like a fleshed-out Jonathan Richman gimmick rocker; on "Rock 'N' Roll Toilet" everyone trades off instruments and they somehow whip together an irresistable anthem a la the mid-60s Stones.
Elsewhere their oddball experiments just don't gel: "The Asking Tree" crawls along with an oddly hybridized blues/disco riff; "Muriel's Hoof/The Route Of The Clones" is unfinished-sounding, Fairport Convention-style instrumental Celtic rock; "When I Was A Kid" wastes a great refrain and an absorbing, trance-like Metcalfe bass line on a rambling, Beatles-influenced psychedelic arrangement; the 50's tribute "Have A Heart, Betty" is just plain silly.
But much of it is snappy, superficially innocent pop-rock with subversive lyrics ("Let Me Put It Next To You"; "Love Poisoning"; the Dylan-influenced "Blues In The Dark").
Metcalfe's popping bass lines are already impressive, and the ringing guitar interplay between Hitchcock and the professional-sounding Rew works well.
Despite some lapses, these rag-tag tunes do nicely encapsulate Hitchcock's quirky charms.
The CD release includes five alternate versions like a superior remake of "Have A Heart" and a slick, disco-y "Rock 'N' Roll Toilet."
Seligman replaces Windsor on a few cuts; Jim Melton adds harmonica parts to a few others. (JA)
Underwater Moonlight (The Soft Boys: 1980)
The bassist here is Seligman, not Metcalfe. (JA)
Two Halves For The Price Of One (The Soft Boys: 1981)
A collection of outtakes and the like. (JA)
Black Snake Diamond Role (1981)
I Often Dream Of Trains (1984)
Fegmania! (The Egyptians: 1985)
Gotta Let This Hen Out! (The Egyptians: 1985)
A solid live album that makes a good introduction to the new band's early period.
It's not terribly thrilling performance-wise because the Egyptians weren't terribly flashy,
but they do add some energy and verve to the material.
And Hitchock's fanciful lyrics are entrancing, with imaginative meditations on topics that most writers avoid - the ones that really inspire him seem to be death ("My Wife And My Dead Wife"; "The Face Of Death") and sexual identity ("Egyptian Cream," which somehow blends the Doors and the Beach Boys).
Even when he's inscrutable his imagery is playful and imaginative ("Acid Bird"; "America").
The record also manages to collect a slew of his drugged-out mood pieces ("The Fly"; "Listening To The Higsons") and thumping geek anthems ("Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl"; "Brenda's Iron Sledge"; "Heaven," one of the few uplifting, transparently romantic songs he ever wrote; the old Soft Boys standard "Leppo & The Jooves").
Jackson's electric organ parts create an amusing garage band vibe (the funky "Only The Stones Remain"), and Metcalfe's melodic bass lines are an irresistable undercurrent.
Snap this up if you can find it.
Recorded at a single show and not produced. (JA)
Groovy Decoy (1986)
A thoroughly disappointing solo album, with Hitchcock's typically uneven songwriting suffering awfully at the hands of bassist/producer Matthew Seligman, who insists on early 80s New Wave windowdressing: drab, clumsy saxophone lines, dull electronic drums, and upbeat, but emotionally barren arrangements, all of which strongly recalls (ack) Men At Work.
And besides, the few really strong tunes can be heard anyway on Let This Hen Out; if you have that album, don't bother with this one. (JA)
Element Of Light (The Egyptians: 1986)
As far as I can tell this is Hitchcock's peak, with every tune delivering memorable hooks and intriguing lyrics.
A 14-song, 51-minute opus, it's stuffed with jangly, druggy, mid- and down-tempo pop-rock that's brought to life by creative instrumentation and studio effects like backwards tracks - and like the Edge, Hitchcock makes up for his lack of lead guitar chops by trying hard to get some interesting sounds out of his guitar.
The lyrics are outstanding, always imaginative ("Raymond Chandler Evening") and frequently perverse in a way that recalls Lou Reed ("Ted, Woody And Junior"; "Tell Me About Your Drugs," where the band members switch off instruments and get away with it).
It's hard to pick favorites, but the dreamy, unpredictable, and carefully harmonized ballads seem to work the best ("Winchester"; "Airscape"; "The Leopard").
Elsewhere, there are a couple foot-stompers that edge toward 50's nostalgia ("Somewhere Apart"; the aptly named Metcalfe showcase "Bass"), some minimalistic, experimental numbers that are arguably dull ("The Black Crow Knows," a Gregorian chant REM-style), and a rambling, but interesting Brit-folk story song ("Lady Waters & The Hooded One").
There are a bunch of radio-friendly rock tunes here like "If You Were A Priest" and Hitchcock's subtle political satire "The President," but they're icing on the cake.
Produced by Hitchock and Metcalfe, who handles a lot of the keyboard parts. (JA)
Invisible Hitchcock (1986)
This apparently compiles two EP's that Hitchcock had released within the previous year: Eaten By Her Own Dinner and Exploding In Silence, the latter featuring the full band. (JA)
Globe Of Frogs (The Egyptians: 1988)
Ironically, the band's major-label debut was a step down from their last LP, albeit a solid effort.
They're most in command on the faster tunes: the psychedelic, almost danceable "Tropical Flesh Mandala," the rockabilly-flavored "Sleeping With Your Devil Mask," the New Wave rocker "Unsettled," and the catchy, hand-clapping gimmick song "Balloon Man."
Plus the similarity of Hitchcock's mid-tempo pop craftsmanship and twangy guitar style to REM (e.g., "Vibrating") is brought out in the open by two Peter Buck guest spots: "Chinese Bones" and the cheerful, mid-60s style album closer, "Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)," which also features harmony vocals by Glenn Tilbrook.
But too often they slow the tempo; on the title track they deliver a weird, evocative blend of Indian mysticism, Dylan-style harmonica, and a creepy late 60s John Lennon-style chorus.
This sort of approach gets out of control on the plodding, soporific "Luminous Rose," and some of the rockers are dull ("The Shapes Between Us...").
It's not a career high point, but the disc still shows off enough intelligence and creativity to make itself worthwhile. (JA)
Queen Elvis (The Egyptians: 1989)
Hitchcock and Metcalfe produce again, and it's a mixed bag. They do deliver their characteristically druggy neo-acid rock sound, and Metcalfe's pulsing bass lines are always worth hearing ("Devil's Coachman," with mordant lyrics, a lurching 3/4 beat, and a complex, XTC-like string arrangement).
But Hitchcock's tunes aren't as sharp, which makes the sluggish four-minute arrangements tedious ("One Long Pair Of Eyes"; "Wax Doll," where the strings don't help; the New Wave dance number "Knife," where Metcalfe's sinuous line is brilliant but Hitchcock can't be bothered with a full lyric).
It's just inexplicable that the title track, which would have been a standout here, was held for a Hitchcock solo record.
But several tunes are keepers: Buck sounds good on the solid sing-along pop-rocker "Madonna Of The Wasps"; Hitchcock wails away with a scratchy, wah-wah'ed funk guitar on the stuttering, neurotic "Freeze"; and "Veins Of The Queen" is lifted by gorgeous counterpoint harmonies. Plus guest Dave Woodhead's quasi-classical trumpet adds interest on both "Freeze" and "Veins," and Hitchcock's lyrics are as clever as ever (the subtly smutty, musically minimal New Wave toss-off "Superman").
Buck's even more of a presence this time, appearing on four tracks and influencing Hitchcock's style - "Autumn Sea" is an excuse for a dull, Buck-style 12-string arpeggiation and some eccentric love poetry; it's really Buck on the sleepy love song "Swirling," but that hardly helps.
Jackson was out of the band at this point. (JA)
Perspex Island (The Egyptians: 1991)
This time Buck appears on most tracks and often defines the sound with his jangly, deliberate riffs (Metcalfe also plays more guitar than usual).
But that seems merely to defuse Hitchcock: one plodding track after another trods overfamiliar, mid-tempo alt rock territory - six pointless minutes worth on "Earthly Paradise."
Minimal instrumental, rhythmic, or stylistic variety leaves much of it sounding like an homage to George Harrison and Roger McGuinn, all 12-strings and dreary harmonies.
The biggest experiments are a middling raga rocker ("If You Go Away") and an echo-laden, mantra-y John Lennon imitation with the usual death lyrics ("Vegetation And Dimes"; "Ride" is a like an early 70s Lennon love song).
There are some solid mid-60s Beatles-style rockers ("Oceanside"; "Ultra Unbelievable Love") and romantic slow dancers ("Birds In Perspex"; "Lysander"), and one successful ersatz REM pop song ("So You Think You're In Love"), but none of this breaks ground.
A moderately entertaining effort, but even more dull and predictable than the preceding disc.
Produced by XTC associate Paul Fox. Mark Isham adds a couple of distracting trumpet parts, Michael Stipe one mild backing vocal (the dull, sluggish, REM-style ballad "She Doesn't Exist"), and Pat Mastoletto some percussion. (JA)
Respect (The Egyptians: 1993)
Hitchcock seems to be pushing here to earn himself some, well, respect, slaving over every track as if it were the Sistine Chapel.
Metcalfe is all over the place with his keyboard parts, and even a couple of unobtrusive string quartet arrangements, and producer John Leckie (yet another XTC veteran) tries his damndest to capture a Beatles-based psychedelic pop sound (the George Harrison-style "When I Was Dead").
Most of the tunes are worthy, and this time there's enough stylistic variety to carry things along (lulling synth textures on "Arms Of Love"; 3/4 time beatnik folk on "Railway Shoes"; Carole King-like piano balladry on "The Wreck Of The Arthur Lee"; Dylan-inspired acoustic folk on "Serpent At The Gates Of Wisdom").
But the dense arrangements are lethargic, and Hitchcock seems low on lyrical ideas - it's one death allegory after another ("Then You're Dust").
Still, though, the nuttiest stuff here makes it memorable: the manic, Soft Boys-like "Yip Song"; "The Moon Inside," with its soaring slide guitar and vocal harmonies; and "Wafflehead," a bizarre jug band groove with Hitchcock whispering sinister sexual metaphors that add new meaning to the term "calabash."
And Hitchcock does deliver a fine, mid-tempo singalong number that shows off his lyrical quirkiness and the band's instinct for pop entertainment ("Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)").
The last Egyptians record, with no reunion in sight. (JA)
You & Oblivion (1995)
A lengthy collection of previously unreleased early and mid-80s outtakes and demos.
Often it's just acoustic guitar with a single vocal, or maybe some bass or lead guitar or an unobtrusive harmony ("Surgery"; the mournful "September Cones").
Hitchcock is always witty and his tunes are pleasant and even engaging ("Nothing"; "Keeping Still"), but everything here sounds the same - "You've Got," "Mr. Rock 'N' Roll," "Take Your Knife Out Of My Back," "Aether," "Fiend Before The Shrine," "Stranded In The Future," "Ghost Ship," "You & Me," etc. are all totally interchangeable, and he frequently falls back on standard folk-blues ("Don't You"), standard atmospheric psychedelia ("August Hair"), standard English folk ("Polly On The Shore"; "If I Could Look"), or standard rock 'n' roll ("Captain Dry").
The handful of production touches, like the tweaked vocals on "She Reached For A Light," barely break the monotony.
There are only a couple of finished or nearly-finished tracks: "Victorian Squid" is amusing and peppy, Peter Buck shows up on the gentle ballad "Birdshead," and Metcalfe livens up the sea chantey "The Dust" and the hypnotic "Into It."
A goldmine if you can't get enough of Hitchcock's elliptical poetry, and otherwise an exercise in tedium.
Chris Cox engineered half the record and plays incidental instrumentation. (JA)
Moss Elixir (1996)
A pleasingly quirky studio album alternating between solo tracks accompanied by violinist Deni Bonet; a few cuts featuring a full rock band; and the usual demo-like recordings.
Everything's carefully done, even numbers like the engaging acoustic anthem "Devil's Radio" that feature little more than multi-tracked vocals, guitar, and oddball incidental instrumentation (in this case, atonal saxophone and slide guitar).
But Hitchcock recycles melodies ("Heliotrope"), and retreats to the tried and true with mid-60s-ish jangle-rock (the radio-friendly, Byrds-style "Alright, Yeah"), Dylan-on-acid folk tunes ("Man With A Woman's Shadow"), and lyrics focusing on death, the occult, and sexual identity ("You And Oblivion").
On "Beautiful Queen," he goes overboard with yet another Beatles tribute: backwards guitars, "Penny Lane"-style trumpet, melodic bass, etc. - it's enjoyable but extraordinarily derivative.
And despite such high points, several of the cuts drag ("This Is How It Feels").
Still, there are some new wrinkles: an experimental horn arrangement on the peppy pop tune "Chirico Street"; an Elizabethean folk vibe on "The Speed Of Things"; and Bonet's sonorous, creepy playing (the spartan, VU-like "Sinister But She Was Happy"; "Filthy Bird"; "I Am Not Me," with an unexpected tribute to the Small Faces).
A couple of real winners here like "Alright, Yeah," and it does demonstrate much of Hitchcock's range, but it doesn't rank with the Egyptians' better albums.
Produced by Hitchcock. There's a ton of bit players; Morris Windsor guests on some of the rock tunes, but only on backing vocals. (JA)
Storefront Hitchcock (1998)
Soundtrack to a new film about Hitchcock that was directed by Jonathan Demme.
I have it, and I think it's a footnote in his catalogue, with decent but unenlightening acoustic performances of mostly well-known tunes.
The main selling point is the long, dream-like stream-of-consciousness monologues he uses to introduce several tracks.
A second guitarist (Tim Keegan) and a viola player (Deni Bonet) play on several cuts but have little impact. (JA)
Jewels For Sophia (1999)
A reliable dose of Hitchcock's morbid humor and non-linear thinking, slowed down by weak tunes (title track, with way too much rapping).
He's often hysterically funny (the mid 60s-Dylan-like grunge assault "Viva! Sea-Tac") and laughably sex-obsessed ("Dark Princess"), although he's also capable of being flat-out romantic ("I Feel Beautiful").
Once in a while he gets an old-style New Wave sound ("Sally Was A Legend," with the early Rolling Stones impersonation "Elizabeth Jade" one of the more energetic, finished-sounding cuts).
But more often he's mired in folk and even blues formulas ("You've Got A Sweet Mouth On You Baby").
That said, it's amusing to hear the country influence on the overdriven "NASA Clapping."
And there are some definite high points here like the slow-mo folk rocker "Mexican God," the groovy acid rocker "The Cheese Alarm," the absurdist mantra "Antwoman," the lyrically bizarre ballad "No, I Don't Remember Guildford," and the snotty bonus track "Don't Talk To Me About Gene Hackman."
Looks like a composite of several projects, with alternating sets of rhythm sections and producers all getting the same off-kilter, lo-fi sound.
Tim Keegan is usually on guitar; Peter Buck guests on the Pete Gerrald-produced numbers, and Kimberly Rew on Charlie Francis' stuff; and Jon Brion plays multiple instruments on his, which feature Grant Lee Phillips twice. (JA)
Nextdoorland (The Soft Boys: 2002)
The band reunited after two decades with a lineup of Hitchcock, Rew, Seligman and Windsor, and they practically picked up where they left off: the tempos are upbeat, Seligman's bass lines are as bubbly as ever, and Hitchcock and Rew work up some energetic guitar interplay.
The production is pretty basic, some tracks seem half-improvised, and Hitchcock is as melodically spacey as ever, but the record is surprisingly energetic and fans will enjoy it. (JA)
Apparently a solo acoustic record.
Hitchcock also has put out a series of official bootlegs and other miscellany on the same minor label. (JA)
Looks like a minor-label release. (JA)
Tell me about your drugs.