Perhaps the blight of the rock n’ roll pioneer is to sound like one’s followers: “Adventure Rocket Ship,” the first track of Robyn Hitchcock’s newest album, Olé! Tarantula, is discernable from dozens of Guided By Voices’ songs only because it’s longer than a minute and a half in duration. And given that Hitchcock’s new backing band, The Venus 3, is made up of a few of his more famous admirers (jokingly referred to in the press kit as “3/4s of the Minus 5 and half of R.E.M.”), one might expect a gushy circle jerk of an album like the recent Jerry Lee Lewis love-in Last Man Standing or those Willie Nelson and friends things that come out every other month or so. No dice. After the blasé “Rocket Ship,” Olé! Tarantula delivers the goods: jangly, addictive psychedelic pop of the type Hitchcock mastered with the Soft Boys and the Egyptians.
After an album of Dylan covers (Robyn Sings) and the ballad-y collaboration with Gillian Welch (Spooked), Olé! Tarantula is a nice return to form. Luckily, that form entails zany lyrics about mushrooms, sex, aliens, and vegetables—often in the same stanza. Newcomers to Hitchcock’s body of work may enjoy Olé! Tarantula more than old fogies who are wearing out their second or third copy of Underwater Moonlight (which this album tweaks with the awesome track “Underground Sun”), but anyone even the least bit fond of the Soft Boys owes this a listen. “Museum Of Sex” bubbles over with punchy horns and a guitar line straight out of the first Velvet Underground album while Hitch yodels about where to find the titular museum (“At the end of your nose,” apparently). “Belltown Ramble” is a jaunty folk tune with a jungle beat; few songwriters can deliver goofiness and joy sans irony quite like Hitchcock, and “Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram)” is manna from new-wave heaven: a collaboration between Hitchcock and XTC’s Andy Partridge.
While Robyn Hitchcock’s seemingly nonsensical wordplay has inspired Stephen Malkmus, Beck, and Dr. Octagon alike, Olé Tarantula concludes with two emotionally rich tracks that make like “Positively 4th Street” or “Tangled Up In Blue” to the rest of the album’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “The Authority Box” is a roaring mix of punk and raga, and features some of Hitchcock’s darkest lyrics. His twangy Cockney accent bitterly decries the “spoiled child” who “hits middle age” and becomes a “freedom fries”-eating CEO, then switches gears and personifies bizarre sexual anxiety, hollering, “Fuck me, baby, on the trolley bus!” over and over again.
But rather than end cynically, Olé closes with a eulogy. “NY Doll” is one of Hitchcock’s most beautiful ballads to date (and he’s been writing mostly ballads lately), a bittersweet ode to the late Arthur Kane, the bassist of the New York Dolls who passed away two weeks after the band’s reunion concert in 2004. Hitchcock may sound like his followers (“NY Doll” reminds me of Malkmus’s “Church On White,” also a eulogy, for the novelist Robert Bingham), but that doesn’t mean he can’t still keep up.