The Soft Boys
Great Central Revisited
Let’s get the history lesson out of the way. The Soft Boys, oozing out of Cambridge, England, carved a unique and mostly-unrecognized niche in the British music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Robyn Hitchcock’s surreal sense of lyric was perfectly balanced against Kimbereley Rew’s razor-sharp guitar, which had tendencies to explode in violent shards. Matthew Seligman and Morris Windsor formed the solidest of backbones, a phlegmatic rhythm section whose unshakeable groove served only to accentuate Hitchock and Rew’s lunacies. The Soft Boys built up to Underwater Moonlight, one of those rare impeccable albums, to the typical critical acclaim and popular neglect. Not long after, The Soft Boys split. Seligman went his own way, performing with Thomas Dolby and others. Rew went back to a previous band, The Waves, which yielded perennial soundbite “Walking On Sunshine” and a few other hits in the UK. Hitchcock took Windsor and original Soft Boys bassist Andy Metcalfe, dubbed them the Egyptians, and went on to release many albums with them, along with a handful of solo efforts. While Hitchcock never quite gained the superstardom his talent deserved, he certainly did well, with hit singles and everything. Rew, on the other hand, has kept a much lower profile, though I’m sure he does nicely on “Walking On Sunshine” residuals. And now, over the course of a couple of months, we have a hotly-anticipated studio reunion and a solo album from the quiet Soft Boy.
There are really two ways to look at Nextdoorland. One, it’s the product of a historic reunion. Two, it’s the logical followup to Underwater Moonlight. At the first, it does surprisingly well. The band sounds together, as if 15 of the last 20 years had simply been sliced off with a razor and the time spliced together. Nonetheless, Hitchock’s hand is fairly evident on here, and it generally sounds a bit more early-Hitchcock than it does late-Soft Boys. There are some exceptions, like the opening “I Love Lucy,” a driving instrumental that reminds me of “Muriel’s Hoof/Rout of the Clones.” Rew’s distinctively incisive guitar work is present but seems to hang back where previously it had absolutely no qualms about stepping to the front and spattering vitriol all over the place. “Strings” is a six-minute piece with a hypnotic and classically surreal psychedelic jam in the middle, and “Lions And Tigers” has one of those askew choruses that were an Underwater Moonlight staple.
As far as being a follow-up to Underwater Moonlight, it’s difficult to say. It’s not exactly contrived, but neither does it sound like the band is bordering of surreal mania. Call it a loss of innocence, or perhaps the difficulty of this material set in a context far removed from its origin. Nextdoorland may not be able to top its predecessor, but then again, it probably knows better than to try. It succeeds by creating something that works better fit between The Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock than in any sort of chronological order. A real retro-modern treat, down to the image of the band (Hitchcock now bearing a shock of white hair) seated at a table that appears to have come off the artwork for Hitchcock’s Groovy Decay.
In contrast, there’s Rew’s Grand Central Revisited. It’s most definitely Rew’s guitar tone in charge, but its sound is more pub rock pop — think Dave Edmunds, early Nick Lowe — than demented folk psychedelia. Rew’s singing voice is not the strongest, but it serves well on top of these guitar-centric songs. “English Road,” perhaps my favorite song on this album, has a great driving sound with a wonderfully harmonic descending melody. On “Screaming Lord Sutch,” Rew somberly recalls recalls the musician and leader of Britain’s Monster Raving Loony political party, who committed suicide in 1999. The following “EC Blues” provides plenty of contrast, a tribute to Eddie Cochran, down to the flaming guitar runs. Robyn Hitchcock makes a couple of appearances, on slide guitar on “Sick of Hearing About Your Drugs” (perhaps a sly reference to Hitch’s own “Tell Me About Your Drugs”) and on “Purple and Orange Stripes,” a purely vocal number whose oddness wouldn’t have been out of place in one of Hitchock’s solo albums. Despite the guest turns, it’s most definitely Rew’s vision and consistently solid songwriting that makes this a great album. It’s somewhat dated in its musical reference, but clearly timeless in its execution.
So what can we take away from all this? Well, you have two great records to begin with. Careful listening to these, and an obsessive familiarity with the Soft Boys/Hitchcock/Rew milieu will begin reveal the nature of the secret spices each member brought into the band. Or you can just play and enjoy these damn fine albums.