Posted by: Nick Walters | March 28, 2009

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3: Goodnight Oslo

This is the first new material from Robyn Hitchcock since 2006’s Ole Tarantula, also recorded with the Venus 3 (Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin) and acts as a companion piece to that album. But where Ole T was brash, jangly, spiky and in-yer-face, full of fantastic pop tunes like Adventure Rocket Ship and St Parallelogram, Goodnight Oslo is mellow, laid back and full of wistful Dylan-esque folk. Actually, that’s not entirely true; there are a lot of horns on this album, which is surprising considering Robyn’s disdain for “horrid mellow saxophones” and his experiences recording Groovy Decay. Here though, the horns work, supplementing the music rather than drowning it out. It’s therefore a diverse work musically, Robyn working with a full band rather than solo.

And there’s the rub. I much prefer Robyn’s solo albums, where it’s just him, a guitar, a piano and me. They produce such a sense of, how can I put it, it’s not melancholy, it’s certainly not misery, but neither is it joy. The best description I ever read was an Amazon review where someone said that the mark of a good Robyn Hitchcock album is if it makes you lie down on the floor.  His best ones – and for me, this means I Often Dream Of Trains, Eye, Moss Elixir, Luxor and Spooked – certainly do this for me. Goodnight Oslo doesn’t.

So read this review bearing this in mind; other Robyn fans may prefer his collaborations; this one does not, so whilst this is a perfectly fine album I cannot commend it as highly as what I consider his best work, and when I listen to Goodnight Oslo, I remain on the sofa without even the slightest inducement to lie on the floor. Well – there are a few moments where I am almost tempted – which I will come to later.

The album opens with the laid-back shuffle of What You Is, a rather by-the-numbers affair which highlights Robyn’s roots in psychedelia (the Soft Boys – to simplify greatly for the benefit of brevity – were an unfashionable marriage of psych and pop as a reaction against punk). Cute BVs and references to buzzing bees raise a laugh. The album then really gets going on the second track, Your Head Here, a pleasing skippy jangle during which Robyn sings, “ring my chimes, I’m a ding dong daddy!” Of course you are, Robyn!

This rather quaint, hippyish theme is carried on and parodied in Saturday Groovers, which paints a picture of the oldest swingers in town getting together every weekend to groove (his word not mine!) despite the impairments of “emphysema, heart disease and gout.”  It’s a raucous tune and thematically similar to though markedly less cynical than the scathing 1974.

I’m Falling is exactly the sort of thing I love, and almost worth a good lie on the floor. A lovely, poignant tune, peppered with a pleasingly Fall-esque riff  during the dreamy “take me awaaaay” refrains. Hurry For The Sky follows, a fast-paced Dylan-esque tune which yearns for release. 16 Years completes a trilogy of more stripped-down songs which, for me, form the heart and soul of the album.

Up To Our Nex is, er, next, and – though lauded by critics and fans – is to these ears, dire. It’s from his mate Jonathan Demme’s 2008 film Rachel Getting Married and is a tuneless waft of nothing, helped, or hindered, by more horns. “We’re up to our necks in love!” breathes Robyn. “How rad!” Other rhymes include blame dad, and how sad. Yes, it is as lame as it sounds.

Intricate Thing follows and is further fluff, with trite lyrics about relationships that would embarrass the young Robyn who wrote Insanely Jealous and thought that was childish. TLC is next, a dark waltz all about OOOH! drugs. It’s OK but by now the album has tailed off somewhat.

So Hurrah! for the big finale! The 6 minute, riff-tastic title track! Sinister, rocking and dark and beautiful. Thing is, it’s rather dull. I think he’s trying to do another Underwater Moonlight here, but nothing really happens, the song doesn’t build, just alternates between two parts.

Oh dear, I seem to have a bit of a downer on this one, don’t I? Well it’s as I said, I prefer his solo stuff. This is a fairly interesting and okay 39 minutes but it’s not among his best, and is best seen as a mellow counterpart to the (slightly superior) Ole Tarantula. Perhaps released as a double album, these two would have packed more of a punch.

As it is, someone PLEASE lock Robyn and his guitar (and maybe a piano) into a deserted windmill with a bowl of cherries, a skull, a suitcase and a long red bottle of wine!

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