Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: The Soft Boys, A Can Of Bees (1979)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Twenty Eight. Archive here.]

A Can of Bees begins with The Soft Boys’ manifesto: “Give It To The Soft Boys.” But what, exactly, is this prurient, absurdist blues number demanding? And why do the Soft Boys think we have it?

In truth, the Soft Boys had already gotten what they needed. It was 1979 and punk had hit, ripping open a space for this Cambridge quartet to explore...howling, off-kilter trad-rock. The young man at the center of the group, singer/guitarist Robyn Hitchcock, was a Syd Barrett acolyte with a penchant for surrealism (which he’s explored throughout his luminous, wonderful career). Guitarist Kimberley Rew reels of riffs that spiral into the distance. Rew would later hit it big with “Walking On Sunshine,” a song that’s a million miles away from the music here.

“Human Music” is probably the album’s best known track. It’s a slow, synchronized jumble of guitar that’s distantly catchy, especially when the band harmonizes on the chorus. With songs like “Human Music,” and on the psych-punk of follow-up Underwater Moonlight, you hear the roots of 80’s indie and college rock (R.E.M.’s Peter Buck was an avid Soft Boys fan).

Most of A Can Of Bees doesn’t so openly strive for listenability. For one, there’s the lyrics. Hitchcock spools off meter after meter of inscrutable, fanciful syllables. On “Leppo And The Jooves,” he observes “Someday you realize that everything you do or see or think of if it interferes with nothing might as well dissolve in arrows or in tears nobody hears.” Even at his most literal, he’s given to confusing observations: “when you’re thin and damp and shoddy/just remember that you’re in a body.”

Hitchcock sings in a high English wail, often dwelling on vowels. They're the most aggressive vocals he's ever put to tape, but dreamy by the standards of his punk and post-punk contemporaries. Still, a certain misanthropy shines through on tunes like “Sandra’s Having Her Brain Out.” (Make sure you hear the 2010 Yep Roc remaster, which features essential cuts like “Rock and Roll Toilet” and “Let Me Put It Next To You”.)

The Soft Boys have an anti-social streak to their songwriting, as well. A Can Of Bees’ dance number, “Do The Chisel,” does not lend itself to dancing, to say the least. Soft Boys tracks sound like ripped-apart shards of 70’s blues-rock, reassembled in tangles with maximum angularity. Bassist Andy Metcalfe hurls the songs forward, and the rest of the Soft Boys dash to catch up. The friction they generate is often tuneful. That might be inadvertent.

Closer “Cold Turkey” is a good model of the band’s approach. The Soft Boys play John Lennon’s tune at one another, emphasizing the pounding bass and zig-zagging riff of the original. It’s not punk, exactly, but a weird expression that punk made possible. The Soft Boys are here, mischievously different, demanding that we give it to them. Let’s.

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