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Death, tarantulas, and Byrds and bees

With a new band sporting an R.E.M. pedigree, the melodic British rocker adds a bit of light to his quirky panoramas.

April 08, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

ROBYN HITCHCOCK is now three decades into a career -- first with the neo-psychedelic Soft Boys, then with the Egyptians and now as a solo artist -- that matches chiming guitars to a surreal and distinctly English love of wordplay. Songs such as "My Wife and My Dead Wife" and "Globe of Frogs" fall somewhere between charming British folk tales and '30s horror movies.

His latest CDs, though, chart a course different from his work of the last decade or two. His new band, the Venus 3 -- which includes R.E.M.'s Peter Buck along with Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin from the Minus 5 (and R.E.M.'s touring lineup) -- gives his lyrics and Beatles-esque melodies a new kick.

"It takes it into the light a bit," he says before a New York show. "Probably because these guys are American it feels more widescreen. The guys I worked with in the Soft Boys and the Egyptians were miniaturists: It was about entering this little world and seeing these beautifully wrought pieces. But it didn't strike you so much from a distance."

The greater scale aside, this band's recordings -- last fall's "Ole! Tarantula" album and a new EP, "Sex, Food, Death and Tarantulas" -- are also the work most likely to please listeners who think Hitchcock has gotten lost since the Soft Boys' stirring and influential "Underwater Moonlight" album in 1980. Says the All Music Guide: "Long, Byrds-inspired harmonies, jangly electric guitars, and random bursts of piano, harmonica, and saxophone pepper the collection in fits, seasoning Hitchcock's already delicious wordplay with exactly the right amount of spice."

These latest releases also have the same lineup as his old group -- two electric guitars, double tracked lead vocals, and backup vocal harmonies so intricate the singer compares them to "two people playing chess."

One thing that hasn't changed is Hitchcock's combination of storytelling with free-association and utopian whimsy. By phone from a New York hotel, his conversation is a lot like his lyrics and between-song banter. "I tend to sing about things I like the look of," he says earnestly. "I sing about segmented creatures, like crabs and lobsters, wasps and bees, things with a head, thorax and abdomen -- that kind of thing."

His songwriting is driven by what he calls "the shock of existence." The son of a science-fiction writer -- Raymond Hitchcock -- the 54-year-old musician spends a lot of time musing on how strange life is. "And imagining, if people were transparent, what their digestive systems would look like, or what it would be like seeing babies gestating inside other humans. Sometimes the whole thing horrifies me, other times it's rapturously beautiful."

The Sundance channel has offered a glimpse into the musician's twisted worldview with a documentary, "Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death and Insects." The doc, much of which involves him playing live with various lineups, offers appearances by Gillian Welch, Nick Lowe, John Paul Jones and others. "It shows me as a musical epicenter," the singer says. "I feel like a bird table they come and roost on."

What's with the unlikely combination of nouns assembled for his EP and documentary titles?

"They're fundamentals," says Hitchcock, who plays Thursday at Spaceland. They're also images that keep showing up in his songs year after year.

"I'm not waxing down my surfboard or selling dope on the street, or the other things people tend to sing about. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for sex," he says, "and we wouldn't have anywhere to go if it wasn't for death."


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