Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ole Tarantula - Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3

When I first listened to Ole Tarantula, I was in a hurry to see the band that night and I didn't play it very loud.

That was my first mistake!

My second was to conclude that it was one of Robyn's lesser albums.

I heard a number of the songs live before I had another chance to come back to the album.

This was when I first started to realise just how strong it is.
Robyn's advice is to listen to it for pleasure first and only then to think about the words and their meaning.

Having now done both numerous times, I recognise what I missed at first: the album is an unadulterated pleasure.

Sorry I'm a bit slow on the uptake!

Adventure Rocket Ship

The first song is an upbeat, fun song that purports to be nothing more.

It gallops along at a rate of knots that, at first, annoyed me for some reason, but it gradually won me over with its good-natured insistence.

Now I can't get it out of my head.

I thought it was a throwaway kind of song. But it's better than that.

In a way, it's a bookend that announces that this rocket ship of an album is packed full of messages for the aliens in our universe and maybe just a few for us on earth as well.

Underground Sun

This song continues the upbeat start. It has some of the feel of REM's Shiny Happy People, even though it concerns the death of a friend.

She is underground, but she hasn't really "gone" while there are people who remember her.

Their memories keep the flame of her life alight. She still shines like the sun: "I know you're there, I can relive you."

It's an affirmation of life despite the inevitability of death and the need to experience the death of others in our own lives.

Museum of Sex

Museum has a funkier sound with hand claps, buoyant bass playing, chunky guitars and some nice R 'n' B horns.

Basically, it's a secular hymn to a great rock 'n' roll riff. "Music is the antidote/to the world of pain and sorrow."

Who knows what the lyrics or the title really mean, but music is the pulse of life and life begins with sex and this riff is now housed forever in a song that might just be a museum of sex!

Belltown Ramble

One day I think we'll see this song as one of Robyn's greatest.

It has a delightful syncopated drum beat accompanied by Scott McCaughey's skittish, simplistic piano.

It's the most nursery rhyme-like of the songs on the album, but it's also the most obvious message from one generation to another, in this case a parent to their daughter.

It's a song of comfort to a young inquiring mind wanting to know their place in the world, most likely intimidated by what life might have in store for them.

The song hints that the most important thing to strive for is an "independent life".

If you do it your way (in Robyn's words, whether you walk a square or an oblong or even just walk straight), even though you might think you've done it wrong, "you did it great".

Within this simple message, Robyn enumerates seven worldly threats to his daughter(?):
1. ignorance;
2. opportunism;
3. greed;
4. fundamental(-ist) faith;
5. haste;
6. waste; and
7. something that I'll paraphrase as insular, self-centred idealism or utopianism that aspires to your own paradise on earth while turning your back on the people in our lives (especially while seated at a computer!).

This is Robyn at his most political, yet the song still comes across as personal rather than polemical.

I love the way he places this message in an identifiable place (Belltown) and coyly plays down its profundity by calling the song a "ramble".

At its heart, it's a warning not to take life or situations or songs or lyrics too seriously.

Ole! Tarantula

This song also disappointed me on first hearing.

However, again, I took it too seriously. It's a playful Basement Tapes-era Dylan pastiche complete with harmonica, saxophone and harmony vocals.

Still, beneath its flippancy, it's a celebration of the wonder of birth and "the shock of human existence" that emerges from the process.

With so much birth and death on this album, it's reassuring that its title derives from a song about birth and rebirth.

(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs

This song started off its life as a lyrical extrapolation on a Clint Eastwood film.

It's musical arrangement has matured with age. Now it's a tour de force of duelling jangle pop guitars, possibly the closest to the Hitchcock and Buck sound of the 2006 tour.

It also seems a bit of a caution that there is more to life than living within the sphere of the imagination. You have to accommodate reality as well. Otherwise you just might explode!

Red Locust Frenzy

This is a more contemplative ballad in the style of solo John Lennon.

Again, both guitars and vocals intertwine gracefully throughout the song.

Lyrically, it contains just a few simple brush-strokes, almost like a haiku, that suggest that you ward off the devil and death for as long as you can, so that you can savour love while you have it.

Ironically, the advice seems to come from the afterlife, even though…"there is no God up here/No captain of your dreams."

'Cause It's Love (Saint Parallelogram)

This is an unpretentious guitar driven song about being in love with the idea of love more than actually loving someone.

Saint Parallelogram moves parallel to life and love without ever truly experiencing it.

The Authority Box

This tale of middle class paranoia and fear of failure is a cross between Dylan at his most accusatory and the Beatles at their most psychedelic.

N.Y. Doll

Slower paced than Briggs, this song about the New York Dolls bass player Arthur Kane is one of Robyn's most beautiful compositions.

It opens with the words "I never finished the book", as if it was starting mid-conversation.

While this line originally made me grin, later you realise that Robyn uses the word "book" as a metaphor for life and mortality:

"But in the library of your memory/ People live in their books/ Till the pages close/ Close on me like they're gonna/ Close on you."

There's something that reminds me of "Tears of a Clown" in the feel of this song.

I recently read a review of the Sydney Basement gig that regretted that the band never really kicked butt.

I can't agree. N.Y. Doll shows that the band (especially Scott McCaughey on bass and Bill Rieflin on drums) can conjure up a sound that kicks like the best of Motown without having to resort to the thrash of a lot of their contemporaries.

So, what to make of the album as a whole?

It's draped in the fabric of nursery rhymes, but like the stories we tell our children, it subtly disguises tales of birth, life and death, imagination and dreams, success and failure.

In the face of mortality, this is Robyn's defiant expression of his joire de vivre.

Ultimately, like the Soft Boys song of the same name, the album is a vessel that conveys "the pulse of my heart".

As long as that pulse survives and beats strong, it will help us battle the "poisons" with which life tempted Arthur Kane.

And when we eventually succumb, then hopefully there will be another generation that has learned from our lessons.

So perhaps Robyn's Adventure Rocket Ship is not just a missive for aliens, it might actually be a Satellite of Love for us earthlings as well!

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