The Soft Boys Swing Again
On Aug. 17, 1980, an English quartet called the Soft Boys played the last show of their only U.S. tour–which consisted of eight appearances in and around Manhattan–at the late, lamented Danceteria. The crowd was sparse, mainly Anglophiles and import hounds who’d managed to track down a copy of the band’s thinly distributed new album, Underwater Moonlight , but the performance did not reflect the disappointing turnout. As they tore into “The Queen of Eyes” and “Positive Vibrations”–tunes with buoyant pop melodies that recalled the glory days of the Byrds and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd–the band sounded like they had a bright, paisley future ahead of them. Yet within a matter of months, the Soft Boys, disillusioned with the music business and tired of each other, would be no more.
On March 24, the same group of musicians–singer-songwriter-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock, guitarist-singer Kimberley Rew, bassist Matthew Seligman and drummer Morris Windsor–took the stage of Irving Plaza, a recent stop in their first true cross-country American tour, to a packed house. After two decades apart, the Soft Boys have reunited to celebrate the 21st birthday of Underwater Moonlight . Recently released by Matador Records in an expanded re-reissue (Rykodisc put out a less ambitious version in the early 90’s), the album has gained a sparkling reputation over time. Most critics would now tell you that it ranks among the greatest works produced by the so-called New Wave of the late 70’s and early 80’s.
In the years since the Soft Boys’ demise, Mr. Hitchcock has gone on to become one of the rock world’s most beloved cult figures. For several years, Mr. Windsor and another ex-Soft Boy, bassist-keyboardist Andy Metcalfe, backed him up in an outfit called the Egyptians. Meanwhile, Mr. Rew formed Katrina and the Waves, best known for their international smash “Walking on Sunshine,” most recently heard in a commercial for allergy medication. Mr. Seligman played bass with Thomas Dolby, the Thompson Twins, Sinéad O’Connor and Tori Amos, among others. But despite their individual successes, the specter of the Soft Boys has dogged the group’s former members, as countless bands–R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo being the most illustrious–have claimed them as a seminal influence.
Listening to Underwater Moonlight today, it’s still possible to hear what made this band and this album so important. The album’s melodic and lyrical sensibilities haven’t aged a second. Mr. Hitchcock’s penchant for surrealistic wordplay, which became something of an albatross in his later work, still feels novel here. At first, the onslaught of animal and vegetable imagery on such tracks as “Kingdom of Love” and “I Got the Hots” appears to be nothing more than willful absurdity that’s either funny, creepy or, sometimes, a combination of the two. But examined more closely, all those prawns and tomatoes reveal themselves as metaphors for central facets of human existence: birth, aging, love, loss, sex, death.
Most importantly, the words are allied with graceful tunes and boosted by formidable guitar work. Mr. Hitchcock has played with a few good guitarists in his time, but he’s never had a six-string partner as simpatico as Mr. Rew. Together, the two engage in a thrilling barbed-wire dialogue, like an English version of Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Their finest joint moment on Underwater Moonlight is probably “Old Pervert,” in which Mr. Hitchcock traces elaborate hammer-on and pull-off patterns around Mr. Rew’s vicious bends and slashes, creating a rhythm that’s as captivating as it is almost impossible to follow.
The Matador version of Underwater Moonlight adds nine bonus tracks to the album’s original 10. Eight of those cuts appeared on the previous Rykodisc reissue, while the ninth, the hilarious “He’s a Reptile,” used to be on Invisible Hits , a compilation released in 1983 after the band’s breakup. A second disc consists of rehearsal tapes from 1979-80, including songs that would later appear on the finished album as well as several that were scrapped. Although there are no lost treasures lurking in its grooves, it’s certainly an interesting aural snapshot. Sonically, several tracks are rather murky, but I suspect that’s due to the music’s humble origins: Underwater Moonlight was cut in a low-rent eight-track studio on a shoestring budget, which no amount of digital remastering can alter.
My own principal reservation about this re-reissue may be nothing more than personal idiosyncrasy, but here goes: I feel that Matador’s decision to release Underwater Moonlight while neglecting the band’s other two studio albums, A Can of Bees and Invisible Hits , is a mistake. Brilliant as Underwater Moonlight is, it’s also the Soft Boys’ most conventional work. (I’m speaking only about the music here; no album that contains the couplet “You’ve been laying eggs under my skin / Now they’re hatching out under my chin” can be called completely conventional.) The rest of the band’s oeuvre boasts a raw, manic aggression and a complexity that at times veers perilously close to that of prog-rock. It’s almost desperate in its outrageousness, which I find greatly appealing. The public would best be served by a multi-disc boxed set that captures every note recorded by this remarkable band. In the meantime, I suppose these two fine CD’s will have to do.
Yet the evidence supplied by the Soft Boys’ recent New York concert suggests that we may not have to wait long for more. Anyone who came to Irving Plaza expecting a night of uninterrupted nostalgia must have been surprised by the inclusion of five brand-new songs, at least two of which, “Sudden Town” and “Mr. Kennedy,” would have made excellent additions to any of the band’s previous albums. Looking as chipper as any middle-aged rock musicians could hope to be, the Soft Boys nonetheless took a while to get rolling. One of the early numbers, “Tonight” from Underwater Moonlight , suffered from a plodding performance, its four-part vocal harmonies tentative and off-key. But five songs in, on “Old Pervert,” the Soft Boys finally clicked. Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Rew assailed each other with magical guitar clangor, while Mr. Windsor powered the brain-teasing beat and Mr. Seligman, whose onstage demeanor perfectly defines the adjective “loping,” laid down a supple bassline.
Later in the show, the mop-headed Mr. Rew looked like he was having the time of his life squeezing out the glistening, reverb-drenched arpeggios of “Insanely Jealous,” and Mr. Hitchcock grinned and gesticulated with wild abandon through “Only the Stones Remain.” Such positive vibrations, coupled with the promising new material, suggest that, after 20 years in retirement, the Soft Boys may finally have a future together. For those who remain skeptical, I offer two words: Steely Dan.
The Boredoms: Kings of Rock
The Boredoms, who hail from Osaka, Japan, are living proof that irony need not be a terminal affliction. Once as jokey as Allan Sherman, the band has stripped their new CD, Vision Creation Newsun (Birdman), of ambivalence and, as a result, have staked their claim as the best rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet right now.
Early in their existence, the Boredoms worked at being obviously amusing, in the manner that Osaka bands often are. Like much Japanese art these days, these Osaka outfits zero in on the marginalia of popular culture and exaggerate it, often to the point of pointlessness and, occasionally, to moments of transcendence.
When these bands succeeded, their music functioned as a fast-acting antidote to the phony Beatlemania that afflicted the 90’s. About a decade ago, I recall seeing another Osaka group called King of Rock, which consisted of two young girls sitting on giant speakers and howling into microphones, while a puffy, fratboy-like guitarist windmilled his arm wildly. Every so often, the chubby guy would strike a painfully loud chord and scream: “I’m the king of rock!” This was a few years before Michael Jackson was building effigies of himself in Budapest, but the point was still difficult to miss.
At their most ironic, the Boredoms were the kings of the King of Rock. Led by John Zorn compatriot Yamataka eYe, they turned the history of rock gestures into an avant-music-hall style. Live, eYe swallowed his microphone while his guitarists played mock metal riffs and the two drummers stopped and started like a couple of Neil Pearts. Their records never quite captured the spirit of their live shows, however. The Boredoms seemed ambivalent about their ambivalence.
Somewhere along the way, though, the band got happy (in the hallucinogenic sense of the word). On Vision , the Boredoms embrace their collective inner hippie, but there is none of the fat that jam bands such as Phish and Blues Traveller excrete as they grasp for that one inspired moment. Vision takes its cue from the early 70’s–a singularly unironic period–with the heavy trance riffing of Neu! music, tribal drumming and the rhythmic explosiveness of the Stooges.
The album, which uses unintelligible (at least to me) glyphs for song titles, sounds as if it’s essentially a single track that builds over the length of the CD. There is a lot of percussion, ebbing and flowing guitars and, as the Fall’s Mark E. Smith once put it, the three R’s: repetition, repetition, repetition. There are also lots of squirting synthesizers in the background that throw the ear off balance. Lead singer eYe’s lyrics sound like half-chanted fragments of some lost language. The first track is about 14 minutes of the album’s title recited over and over. In the Boredoms’ world view, ritual is meaning.
What the album doesn’t have is analysis or insult. With Vision , the Boredoms’ past becomes prelude. Without sacrificing any of the experimental touches that have distinguished their past, they have made an album of honest rock music that’s both epic and weirdly optimistic.
It’s as if all their previous engagement in the deconstruction (and criticism) of the genre was preparation for their getting it right. In doing so, they’ve put out the first album in years that proselytizes the power of rock without any whiff of hypocrisy, embarrassment or incompetence. Unfortunately, they may very well have found the path to a truthful rock music just in time to become its pallbearers. At least the corpse will have a smile on its face.