The Soft Boys must be the only band in history to have embarked on a tour in support of an album...that had been originally released 21 years ago. My wife and I saw them in a hot, claustrophobic and noisy firetrap a few years ago, as they re-presented the re-released and suddenly hypeable (and wonderful) Underwater Moonlight. I should say, saw parts of them, as the stage at The Horseshoe is about two foot high. I've been a Robyn Hitchcock listener since the mid-'80s, but I'd never really gone back and given the SBs a listen. More fool me. They came across live as one of those very rare beasts: the high-quality bar-room pop band. Great energy, with just the right amount of sloppiness, and a sensibility that spoke to a small space.
Nextdoorland is the one-off result of the band's reunion efforts, which is a pity because this record has a great deal of breadth and is a hell of a lot of fun. It's produced by Pat Collier, who also twiddled the knobs on Moonlight and did wonders with a no-budget recording. The band here is recorded fairly transparently and naturally, much as they sounded live, which works very well for the most part. The songs are among Hitchcock's best in recent times, and very well supported by the band dynamic. Both on his own and with The Egyptians, I sometimes feel that RH--perhaps the curse of the prolific songwriter--can get a bit lazy about the connecting bits and details, but the trio of Rew, Seligman and Windsor really help to make interesting what might otherwise be sections of filler.
What's striking about the album is how much of it sounds like, well, The Soft Boys, given that Hitchcock has always been the songwriter and has churned out umpteen albums during the prolonged hiatus. I hear the most obvious echoes of his late '90s material in the gentler numbers, like "My Mind Is Connected...," which would not sound out of place on Jewels For Sophia, but mostly the material is a mellower version of the band's particular blend of post-punk and psych-pop, with perhaps less emphasis on the former. "Mr. Kennedy," which they played in some form on the '01 tour, is one of Hitchcock's best songs, an American travelogue number that would serve as a very good introduction to the band or to Hitchcock. This is my main point of reference on the album, as I find that the remainder of the tracks are either more or less in-your-face than this in tone. On the "more" side, I love "Sudden Town," which starts with a twin-guitar riff reminiscent of "Rebel Rebel," and is incredibly self-propulsive. The closer, "Lions and Tigers," probably wouldn't amount to much without its loping sing-along chorus, but "Pulse of My Heart" and the mostly instrumental "I Love Lucy" are bouncy, bouncy fun. The band's approach doesn't help as much with "Unprotected Love," which I thought would end up swingier after hearing a solo version of it at an earlier RH show. On the "less" side, "La Cherite" shows Hitchcock the balladeer in excellent form. It sounds like a hybrid of some of the more laid back stuff from the less-than-stellar Perspex Island and the creepier tunes from I Often Dream Of Trains. As per usual, several of the lyrical reference escape me.
I guess Hitchcock has too much of the wandering minstrel in him to settle down with a band again, and he announced not too long after the release of Nextdoorland that it's goodbye from him. Shame.