Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3
ronically, the most “new” sounding album I’ve heard this year is by one of the oldest musicians in the business—The Drift, by 63-year old Scott Walker, is the best avant-garde album you’ll hear this year. What’s more, 2006 saw new releases from relentless innovators Sonic Youth (as much as it pains me to call them “older musicians”) and Vashti Bunyan returned from a thirty-year tea break to lead psych-folk’s second coming.
So, when Robyn Hitchcock enlisted resident oddballs Peter Buck and Bill Rieflin from R.E.M. and Scott McCaughey from The Minus 5 and dubbed them The Venus 3, my expectations were high for rampant experimentalism. That and the fact that the former Soft Boy is known for his idiosyncratic lyrics. Then I listened to Olé! Tarantula and…well, I found it accessible.
The album begins with a killer trifecta: opener “Adventure Rocketship” is the closest to pop perfection the album gets, with a tight rhythm and as many time changes as you’ll find on Hot Hot Heat’s latest. If Hitchcock weren’t singing lines like “hermaphrodite in style” through a Radiohead-esque vocoder, this song could easily be a top 40 hit. Though follower “Underground Sun” doesn’t reach the same level of excellence, it’s still about as catchy as Gnarls Barkley covering Fall Out Boy, with a surf guitar bouncing along right underneath Hitchcock’s Lennon-esque croon. Closing this kick-ass start to the album is “Museum of Sex,” which explores the more jazzy side of The Soft Boys’ sound, coming off like a Prozac-laden Spiritualized.
Unfortunately, the magic of these first three songs is never captured again—and Hitchcock slips the worst track he has to offer in immediately after them. Clocking in at an unwieldy six minutes, “Belltown Ramble” sounds like Mutations-era Beck without Godrich at the helm. While there may have been hope for the song as a brief interlude, having it clock in at such a length was a mistake for a melody this brittle.
Fortunately, Hitchcock works hard to recapture the brilliance and the following title track (nearly) does just that. Featuring a heavy dose of harmonica, “Olé! Tarantula” feels more akin to Americana than it does to the psychedelic pop that Hitchcock helped to perfect. Hitchcock again sticks with the country vibe on “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs,” the first down-tempo track on the album worth your time. As the song progresses, it slowly shifts back towards psychedelic territory, ending more similarly to the Beach Boys than to Wilco.
This shift mirrors how the album will finish; despite changing course around the mid-way point, Hitchcock closes it in his familiar style. “’Cause it’s Love” could have fallen straight out of Magical Mystery Tour and “The Authority Box” is a reminder of Hitchcock’s lyrical absurdities—“Fuck me, baby, I’m a trolley bus” is one of the best lines you’ll hear all year.
While both of these songs are fun, however, they bring very little new to the table, and the same can be said for the entire album. It’s like a walk in the ankle-deep surf—for those who drown in The Drift, it may be one of the best albums of the year, and for those who like to go a little deeper, it’s completely inoffensive. Unless of course you’re offended by lines like “I feel like a three-legged chinchilla.”
Reviewed by: Matt Collins
Reviewed on: 2006-11-06