The Soft Boys

not much may be expected from The Soft Boys’ newest release, Nextdoorland. After all, it has been twenty-two years since the band released its previous album, Underwater Moonlight. This album was a watershed, influencing countless musicians, yet was never even released in the U.S. until its two reissues (the first in 1994, which was christened with a brief reunion tour, as was the second reissue, this time by Matador Records, just last year). What possible good could come from these four individuals reuniting and recording a follow-up to an album, which, to most who have heard it, would immortalize as “classic”? Not content to call this a comeback, a reunion, nor a retread, The Soft Boys have just made the next Soft Boys album.

The Soft Boys have never been interested in doing the “in” thing. In the days of punk when Johnny Rotten ran all over London wearing his “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt, the members of The Soft Boys were harking back to the psychedelic sounds of Syd Barrett-era Floyd. In an era of economy and harshness in music, this band responded with jangly guitars and fluid, psychedelic freedom. Once it was apparent that no one seemed to care, and member squabbles, however non-explosive they were, bubbled to the surface, the band members parted ways as if by domino effect. Bassist Matthew Seligman (who had replaced original bassist Andy Metcalfe before Underwater Moonlight was recorded) was the first to go, with drummer Morris Windsor and then singer/songwriter/guitarist Robyn Hitchcock following close behind; guitarist Kimberley Rew was the only one left to not wittingly leave the band.

Hitchcock soldiered on semi-famously, forming Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (which Metcalfe and Windsor were members of); whilst Seligman went on to play with the likes of David Bowie, Thomas Dolby and Morrissey, until taking an intriguing left turn to study law. Rew, meanwhile, found the pop success that he had wanted, and which had eluded The Soft Boys in the form of the song “Walking On Sunshine”, which he wrote and recorded with his new band at the time, Katrina and the Waves.

All roads eventually lead back to the Underwater Moonlight-era lineup to soldier on and make a proper studio follow-up. Working again with Moonlight producer Pat Collier, the songs may seem to be tilted more towards Hitchcock’s milieu than the band’s as a whole, but remains far more intriguing than most other releases of the year.

Nextdoorland, though it at first sounds as if it is fifteen years too late, pulls the listener in with repeated spins. The psychedelic underpinnings of old are cleaned up a bit and the anger and bile that lay beneath the surface of the earlier material has been calmed, but there is still much to be enjoyed.

Hitchcock, like Morrissey, is a master at turning a phrase and making it sound as if it is being spoken for the very first time. On “Strings”, to hear him sing the line, “Father in Heaven / or father in purgatory” is a joy to the ears, as is the undeniable dexterity of Rew’s guitar lines. Twists and turns, styles turned on their ears and multi-guitar parts litter this album. Hitchcock may be the crux of the album vocally and lyrically, but Rew steals the show on the instrumental side.

”Pulse Of My Heart” travels about in a pleasant manner, with its sweet vocal by Hitchcock and its teardrop-tom hits courtesy of Windsor. However, the song soon explodes into a chanted chorus of “Alright!”, which then segues into a breathtaking solo by Rew.

On “Mr. Kennedy”, the band has the song that should be its hit. The chorus pops with elation. Windsor’s rhythms propel the song along, with cymbal crashes accentuating the heart of the chorus. As Windsor does also, along with Seligman’s assist, on “Sudden Town”. The band as a whole slows things down with the languid and relaxing “La Cherite”, wherein Hitchcock utters the line, “I wish I could be / 23 / I could waste time”.

On songs such as “Japanese Captain” and “My Mind Is Connected”, Hitchcock’s voice; soft, sensual and warmly inviting; plays the biggest part. “...Connected” is a dreamy tale with strong psychedelic roots. Casting off lines such as “The horn of Florida” and “I loved your tennis court”, while Rew’s Arabian-style guitar plays underneath, Hitchcock shows a surrealist’s edge to his lyrics. The soaring chorus of “It’s only a poisonous plant / and it’s calling your name”, closes the song out on a high note. While “Japanese Captain” offers the best use of multi-layered guitar work by Rew, it also serves up some very witty lyrical flourishes. “Under the radar is good / But under your fingers is better”. “I will kiss you somewhere that is dark / I adore you”, Hitchcock coos to his lover.

The album does have its share of the bite of old at times. “Unprotected Love” is a rave-up, Texas style. This is most evident in Rew’s playing. With the venomous lyrics, “Nobody wants to be vulnerable / everyone wants to be horrible / Just like that pig in the underpass / Sharing your trough with the anti-Christ”, Hitchcock tears into the wicked ones. On “Strings”, Rew’s furious guitar powers the song, but Hitchcock’s lyrics tower over the music. “Evil is the new enemy / Evil is the new bad”, is perhaps a stab at the podium-thumping world power leaders of today. By the time the song nears its end with the “I Wanna Destroy You” familiarity of “I wish that I was just paranoid”, the listener has been taken around the world in a matter of minutes.

The album closes with the defiant sound of “Lions and Tigers”, a rocker unlike anything else off of the album. The line, “Lions and tigers / Eat the same bits as each other”, changes towards the end of the song to, “Lions and tigers / Meet the same fate as each other”. Hitchcock, harking back to the line about youth on “La Cherite”, spits out, “I screwed up when I was young / But must I keep paying for it?” The chorus of “Yes you must”, answers him.

The Soft Boys have shaken free of the terminology bestowed upon most reunited acts and set its own course for their destiny. By wiping away the romanticized version of their past, the band has forged ahead to find their place in the here and now. Here is wishing that this album is not just a one-off effort and that many more are to come.

Reviewed by: Brett Hickman
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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