Under Review: Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 – Propellor Time

I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that not every new Robyn Hitchcock album is going to be as instantly gratifying as, say, I Often Dream Of Trains or, more recently, Spooked.  Perhaps it’s this acceptance that has kept me open to his seemingly constant output over the past few years.  After all, the guy had 2 albums in the top 20 of my favorite albums of the ‘00s list, so I guess I’m obligated to give each of his new records a fair chance.  Reuniting once again with The Venus 3 (that is, Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin), Robyn delivers his latest, Propellor Time, just over a year after his last venture, Goodnight Oslo.  While they’ve all featured a good number of memorable songs, Robyn’s more recent albums generally lack the overall quality of his classic era work.  Still, judging it only against its more contemporary kin, Propellor Time is a rather strong set.  Like Goodnight Oslo, the album is predominantly made up of mid-tempo tunes that balance Robyn’s iconic surrealist bent with mellow, delicate melodies.  Generally, this leads to songs that are quite strikingly beautiful (like “Primitive” and the title track).  These songs evoke the limited propulsion of Robyn’s rhythm section-less albums of the mid 1970s, as well as his current fascination with mostly acoustic balladry.   When the band picks it up a bit, though, the album’s standouts really shine.  “Sickie Boy,” which comes near Propellor Time’s close, is a group-vocal moment that evokes that final song in a concert’s set where everyone is at once fired up and ready to go home.  The song is the album’s best contribution to the vast Hitchcock catalogue, though that’s not to say that all of Propellor Time’s worth is spent on just one song.

As he mentions during a quick album credit at the end of “Sickie Boy,” Hitchcock produced Propellor Time with a number of collaborators in addition to The Venus 3.  “Ordinary Millionaire” features guitar work from Johnny Marr, who also co-wrote the song.  Bassists Nick Lowe and John Paul Jones also appear on the tracks, which were mostly recorded around 2006, but were completed only now.  In one particularly interesting move, the intricate “Luckiness,” with Buck providing some chiming mandolin, turns out to be a live track.  To include a live recording on an otherwise studio album is one of those classic Hitchcock strokes of eccentricity that keeps Propellor Time from being a mere career also-ran.  With his not-so-newfound identity as the world’s strangest troubadour, Hitchcock can always be depended on for penning songs that wind their way into profundity.  He tackles religion and science in one casual swoop on closer “Evolove,” which features the line, “And if Jesus was alive/Would you give him a high-five?”  Making silly references to things that others take dead seriously is a hallmark of Hitchcock’s writing style, which, though it might be put to stronger use on other albums, is no less effective on Propellor Time.  Like many of his recent records, Propellor Time is a typical Hitchcock album in that it’s not immediately mind blowing, but it’s nonetheless an enjoyable listen for those already accustomed enough to Hitchcock’s style to give the album the attention it deserves.

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~ by E. on April 16, 2010.

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